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Understand your difficulty concentrating symptoms, including 8 causes and common questions.
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
- Inability to sit still
- Racing thoughts
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
Insomnia disorder is a short-term or chronic condition whereby individuals have difficulty
sleeping. Other common symptoms include fatigue, difficulty with concentration, social
dysfunction, reduced motivation, and behavioral changes. The short-term form of
the condition is usually ...
Depression is a mental disorder in which a person feels constantly sad, hopeless, discouraged, and loses interest in activities and life on more days than not. These symptoms interfere with daily life, work, and friendships.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with depression: depressed mood
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Generalized anxiety disorder (gad)
Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental health problems in the United States. Generalized anxiety disorder refers to ongoing feelings of worry and anxiousness that persists for at least six months. Generalized anxiety disorder seems to run in families, making some individuals more vulnerable to stressors than others.
Symptoms include constant feelings of worry over both major and everyday events, difficulty concentrating or sleeping, feeling tired, irritability, as well as physical symptoms, such as headaches and body aches.
The diagnosis is made by patient history and physical examination to rule out physical causes. The individual may be referred to a mental health specialist for further evaluation and treatment, which may involve talk therapy to learn new ways to manage stress, medications, and lifestyle adjustments.
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
CFS is a chronic, debilitating condition of extreme fatigue that persists for more than six months and results in a substantially lower level of occupational, educational, or social functioning than experienced prior.
It is characterized by fatigue that worsens wi...
Post-concussion syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur after a head injury. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that involves confusion and memory loss, with or without a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome typically occurs after concuss..
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.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, weight gain, muscle aches
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Acute stress disorder (ASD) 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 o...
Difficulty concentrating treatments and relief
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
- 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.
Dr. Wilkinson received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and his BA from Princeton University where he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Princetonian. He is currently a resident in psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. Outside of the hospital, Jack worked as an editor at The JoongAng Daily of South Korea and a freelance writer.
- Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. NIMH Link.
- Hilty DM, Leamon MH, Hales RE, et al. A Review of Bipolar Disorder in Adults. Psychiatry (Edgmont). 2006;3(9):43-55. NCBI Link.
- Jasmin L. Memory Loss. U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus. Updated December 3, 2018. MedlinePlus Link.
- Memory Changes in Older Adults. American Psychological Association. Published June 11, 2006. APA Link.
- Depression. Anxiety and Depression Association of America. ADAA Link.