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Difficulty Concentrating

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Last updated September 17, 2020

Difficulty concentrating quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your difficulty concentrating.

Understand your difficulty concentrating symptoms, including 8 causes and common questions.

Difficulty concentrating quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your difficulty concentrating.

Take difficulty concentrating quiz

Difficulty concentrating symptoms

No matter how hard you try, it seems impossible to focus on the task at hand. Distractions are drawing your attention away every few minutes, whether they're related to technology, your coworkers or family, or even pets. Even the most organized can have difficulty concentrating from time to time. While you may hope to regain focus on your own, falling behind can make the problem worse. So, it's best to address the problem as early as possible.

Common accompanying symptoms

Other associated symptoms of difficulty concentrating include the following.

  • Feeling on-edge
  • Distractibility
  • Inability to sit still
  • Racing thoughts
  • Irritability
  • Frustration
  • Forgetfulness

Many people report difficulty concentrating symptoms, yet the issue can take different forms. Sometimes, your symptoms may indicate a medical issue, while other times, a mental health professional is best-equipped to address the problem.

Difficulty concentrating causes

The causes for difficulty concentrating can vary as much as the symptoms, and there may be multiple factors contributing to the problem for any one person. The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and when and if to see a physician.

Psychological causes

There are several psychological causes of difficulty concentrating, such as the following.

  • Attention disorders: Though usually diagnosed in children, attention disorders can also strike adults and may seriously disrupt productivity at home, school, or the office.
  • Depression: Feeling down or blue can make it tough to manage your thoughts.
  • Bereavement: After the death of a loved one, it can take months to recover.
  • Anxiety: People with serious worries often have trouble focusing on just one task as their attention may be divided.
  • Mood disorders: Uncontrolled conditions such as bipolar disorder may involve racing thoughts.

Medical causes

You may have difficulty concentrating due to an underlying medical condition.

  • Hormone problems: Dysfunction of the adrenal gland can result in changes in your energy level and ability to concentrate.
  • Thyroid issues: When your thyroid is working too little or too much, your concentration can suffer.
  • Low red blood cell count: Red blood cells carry oxygen to the brain, and a shortage can deprive the brain of necessary energy.

Environmental causes

You may have difficulty concentrating due to certain lifestyle habits or events.

  • Stress: Stress can zap your concentration, making it difficult to complete tasks, and continue in a cycle.
  • Overstimulating environment: When a task isn't incredibly interesting, it may be almost impossible to tune out the nearby TV, put down the cell phone, or stop chatting with your officemate.
  • Lack of sleep: A good night's rest is the body's way of recovering from a day of hard work, and without time off, drowsiness will almost certainly take over.
  • Burnout: If you're on the brink of emotional exhaustion, focusing on any task can be a losing battle until you address the underlying problem directly.

Difficulty concentrating, aging, and cognitive impairment

Sometimes people wonder if their difficulty concentrating is related to memory problems or other aging issues. It's important to distinguish aging from more severe conditions, such as dementia.

  • Aging: As we get older, it is normal to occasionally forget certain words or misplace the keys for a few minutes. This problem can be distracting but usually will not require treatment.
  • Cognitive impairment: People with more severe memory problems, such as frequently forgetting events or even family members' names, often have issues staying focused on a task or conversation. Sometimes friends or family notice problems before the person with concentration difficulties.

8 conditions of difficulty concentrating

This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.

Sleep deprived

Sleep deprivation is also called sleep debt. It is the state of not getting adequate sleep, either in the short term or the long term.

Sleep apnea is a common cause, as is the routine of modern life with too many hours of work and activities.

Symptoms include clumsiness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, memory lapses, slow healing, daytime sleepiness, and sometimes depression. Often there is weight gain, partly due to metabolic disturbance and partly due to eating more in an effort to maintain energy and continue working.

Sleep deprivation interferes with quality of life. There is risk of job loss due to inability to concentrate, as well as risk of accidents from becoming sleepy while driving or operating machinery. Weight gain and Type 2 diabetes are both more common in those who are chronically sleep deprived.

Diagnosis is made through patient history and sometimes through a sleep study in a lab.

Treatment involves addressing any underlying medication issues or other causes, as well as establishment of "sleep hygiene" habits and routines that contribute to better sleep.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, daytime sleepiness, sleep duration less than 7 hours, difficulty concentrating

Symptoms that always occur with sleep deprived: sleep duration less than 7 hours, daytime sleepiness

Symptoms that never occur with sleep deprived: nausea or vomiting, being severely ill, fever, unintentional weight loss

Urgency: Wait and watch

Difficulty concentrating quiz

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Post-concussion syndrome

Concussion symptoms tend to last for a few days to weeks. Sometimes, symptoms are long term, lingering for several months or even years. This is known as post-concussion syndrome (PCS). Some of the most common PCS symptoms include headaches and confusion. Memory problems and difficulty concentrating may also occur.

You should consider visiting a medical professional in the next two weeks to discuss your symptoms. A doctor can evaluate PCS with a review of your symptoms and an MRI. Once diagnosed, treatment depends on your specific symptoms but often focuses on letting the brain rest and recuperate. You may be asked to temporarily stop sports and exercise until you are cleared to return.

Insomnia disorder

Insomnia disorder means being unable to fall asleep, or to stay asleep long enough to get the normal seven to eight hours of sleep per night.

Common causes are pain; sleep apnea; depression; stress and worry over life events; circadian rhythm disorders such as jet lag; aging; and certain medications.

Many medical conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, cause poor sleep. Women who are pregnant or menopausal may experience insomnia due to hormone shifts.

Symptoms include waking up during the night; feeling tired in the morning; daytime sleepiness and irritability; and increased errors and accidents through inability to concentrate.

Diagnosis is made through physical examination, patient history, and sometimes testing at a sleep study center.

Treatment consists of addressing underlying medical conditions, along with managing stress and checking all medications and supplements.

Improving "sleep hygiene" means establishing a routine of lying down in a dark room at the same time each night, with no television, computer, or phone. Avoiding food and caffeine before bedtime will prevent heartburn and wakefulness while trying to sleep.

Hypothyroidism

Hypothyroidism, or "underactive thyroid," means that the thyroid gland in the neck does not produce enough of its hormones. This causes a slowing of the body's metabolism.

The condition can occur due to autoimmune disease; any surgery or radiation treatment to the thyroid gland; some medications; pregnancy; or consuming too much or too little iodine. It is often found among older women with a family history of the disease.

Common symptoms include fatigue, constantly feeling cold, weight gain, slow heart rate, and depression. If left untreated, these and other symptoms can worsen until they lead to very low blood pressure and body temperature, and even coma.

Diagnosis is made through a simple blood test.

Hypothyroidism is easily managed with daily oral medication. The patient usually starts feeling better after a couple of weeks and may even lose some extra weight. It's important for the patient to be monitored by a doctor and have routine blood testing so that the medication can be kept at the correct levels.

Rarity: Rare

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)

Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, refers to an ongoing feeling of worry and anxiousness about everything and nothing at once. The feeling never really lifts no matter what steps might be taken.

GAD seems to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable to stress and environmental factors than others.

Symptoms include constant feelings of worry over everyday things and major events; difficulty concentrating or sleeping; being jumpy or easily startled; always feeling tired; irritability; and physical symptoms of headaches and body aches.

Ongoing GAD can be quite debilitating and interfere with quality of life. Any medical provider can send the patient to an appropriate physician for further help.

Diagnosis is made by patient history, followed by a physical examination to rule out any physical cause. The patient will be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist for further evaluation.

Treatment involves cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps the patient learn to respond to the world in healthier ways and, especially, to manage stress. Antidepressant medication may be prescribed, since it can be helpful for anxiety.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, trouble sleeping, general anxiety (stress), irritability, nausea

Symptoms that always occur with generalized anxiety disorder (gad): general anxiety (stress)

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Depression

Moderate depression, also called dysthymia or dysthymic disorder, is one of the three general forms of : mild, moderate, or severe. About half of all people suffering from have the moderate form.

The causes of any depression are not known for sure. Some may be situational, such as grief or other difficult life events. Others may be due to physiological causes such as chemical or hormonal imbalances.

Symptoms include loss of interest in normal activities; neglect of activities of daily living; and loss of productivity, though the person will continue going through the motions of attending work or school.

If not treated, moderate depression can worsen into major depression.

Diagnosis begins with physical examination and blood tests to rule out any physical causes. A mental health professional will talk to the patient to learn about any difficult situational factors.

Treatment may or may not involve antidepressant medication, since antidepressants generally work best for severe depression. Psychotherapy, exercise, relaxation techniques, and lifestyle improvements are usually tried first for moderate depression, and are often very effective.

Rarity: Common

Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability

Symptoms that always occur with depression: depressed mood

Urgency: Primary care doctor

Chronic fatigue syndrome

Chronic fatigue syndrome is a disease that causes unexplained fatigue that does not improve with rest.

While there is no cure, symptoms can be managed with medication & lifestyle changes.

Acute stress disorder

Acute stress disorder is also called ASD, acute stress reaction, or mental shock. It is a psychological condition caused by trauma, especially by any violent attack such as robbery, assault, or combat. "Acute" means that clear symptoms appear within days of the traumatic event.

Most susceptible are those with a previous history of trauma, or a history of other mental health conditions.

Symptoms include severe anxiety as well as dissociation, which is the feeling of being outside of one's body and observing events from a distance. There will also be detachment, emotional numbness, and flashbacks to the traumatic event.

It is important to see a medical provider about symptoms of ASD, because it can easily lead to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) if not treated. PTSD is the chronic, ongoing version of ASD.

Diagnosis is made through psychological evaluation. Sometimes a physical examination is done as well to rule out any physical causes for anxiety or depression.

Treatment involves a type of psychological counseling called cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT, and sometimes short-term anxiolytic medication.

Difficulty concentrating quiz

Take a quiz to find out what's causing your difficulty concentrating.

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Difficulty concentrating treatments and relief

At-home treatments

Since many causes of concentration problems are related to lifestyle and environmental issues, try changing your routine.

  • Reduce stimuli in your environment: A constantly buzzing cell phone is a recipe for disaster when working on a deadline. Silence your electronics, turn off the TV, and find a quiet space.
  • Get a good night's sleep: It's hard to overestimate the benefits of a solid eight or nine hours of sleep.
  • Give up caffeine: Though it can give an effective energy boost, caffeine can also make people feel restless and distractible. If you've been drinking coffee or energy drinks for a while, wean yourself off of them over a few weeks to avoid withdrawal symptoms like headaches.
  • Make a schedule: Create a task list and set mini-deadlines to stay on task and keep track of your progress.

When to see a doctor

If the above suggestions don't make a difference, it's time to visit your doctor, who may recommend some of the following treatments.

  • Therapy: Working with a professional is the best way to address underlying problems like depression or anxiety that make it hard to keep focused on even simple tasks.
  • Cognitive testing: A neurologist can perform special tests to determine if there is a specific medical issue.
  • Stimulants: Medications like Adderall or Ritalin can dramatically improve concentration in those with properly diagnosed attention disorders.
  • Psychotropic medications: Sometimes other prescription medications are the best option if difficulty concentrating is due to an underlying psychiatric condition.
  • Blood tests: A doctor may decide to check the level of your hormones or blood count.

When it is an emergency

See your doctor right away if you have the following difficulty concentrating symptoms:

  • Sudden-onset, severe headache
  • Difficulty seeing or speaking
  • Confusion
  • Sudden weakness in the face or body



FAQs about difficulty concentrating

Here are some frequently asked questions about difficulty concentrating.

Can anxiety cause difficulty concentrating?

Yes, anxiety can cause difficulty concentrating. Disorders associated with anxiety include generalized or situational anxiety disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder. Difficulty concentrating may be because of intrusive thoughts, involving worry about a particular topic, or intrusive memories of a past traumatic event.

Does stress lead to difficulty concentrating?

Yes, stress can lead to difficulty concentrating. Stress activates the fight or flight system, which primes the body to be aware of threats in the immediate environment. Stress can keep you from acquiring the focus necessary to concentrate on a single task. If you are having trouble concentrating, you may also be tired. Rest can increase the ability to concentrate for long periods. Breathing exercises and mindfulness have also shown an ability to increase an individual's concentration.

Can my difficulty concentrating be a sign of depression?

Yes, difficulty concentrating can be a sign of depression. A diagnosis of depression requires other symptoms as well, including but not limited to agitation, inability to sleep or excessive sleepiness, lack of interest in one's normal joys or passions, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, decreased energy, decreased appetite or increased appetite, inability to sit still or slow movements, and suicidal thoughts.

Why do I have difficulty concentrating while pregnant?

Difficulty concentrating can be due to many processes of pregnancy. Decreased sleep is the most common cause, but if difficulty concentrating occurs with confusion and elevated blood pressure, you may have a life-threatening condition and should contact your physician immediately. There are reports of "pregnancy brain" referring to a fog, difficulty concentrating, and difficulty remembering things. Unfortunately, there have been no surveys of frequency or studies about pregnancy brain. Currently, literature has no concrete evidence suggestive of a cause, but common theories include a shift in hormones, blood flow, lack of sleep, or general stress as contributors to pregnancy-associated confusion.

Can low iron cause difficulty concentrating?

Low iron can cause dizziness, lightheadedness, and difficulty concentrating. Iron is used to create the chemical structure (heme) that exists within red blood cells and is used to carry oxygen. If you have low iron stores, you may not have enough blood (anemia) to carry optimal amounts of oxygen to your brain. Low oxygen can lead to lightheadedness and difficulty concentrating.

Questions your doctor may ask about difficulty concentrating

  • Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
  • Are you feeling irritable (easily made upset)?
  • Do you have trouble sleeping?
  • Are your symptoms causing difficulty at work, socializing, or spending time with friends & family?

Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.

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Dr. Rothschild has been a faculty member at Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He currently practices as a hospitalist at Newton Wellesley Hospital. In 1978, Dr. Rothschild received his MD at the Medical College of Wisconsin and trained in internal medicine followed by a fellowship in critical care medicine. He also received an MP...
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References

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  2. Hilty DM, Leamon MH, Hales RE, et al. A Review of Bipolar Disorder in Adults. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2006;3(9):43-55. NCBI Link.
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  5. Depression. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. ADAA Link.