Why can’t I concentrate? Common reasons and what to do
Medically reviewed by Ifeanyi Olele, DO, MBA, MS on January 31, 2023
Having trouble concentrating may mean you’re less able to make decisions, meet your goals, and remember important information. If it happens regularly, this can have a real impact on your schoolwork, professional life, and personal life.
Difficulty concentrating is one of the most common symptoms in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition, text revision (DSM-5-TR), especially in conditions that affect your mood and anxiety levels.
There are many ways to improve your concentration. For some people, this means making more time for sleep and self-care. Depending on the cause, some may benefit from mental health treatments, such as therapy or medication.
Having trouble concentrating is one of the main symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), one of the most common mental health conditions. ADHD can affect adults and children but is more often identified in children.
People with the inattentive type of ADHD have difficulty paying attention, concentrating, and following instructions. Those with the hyperactive type are overly active and impulsive, finding it hard to sit still. Both forms can get in the way of your ability to concentrate.
Other symptoms of ADHD include:
- being easily distracted
- being unable to complete tasks
- interrupting conversations
- difficulty thinking clearly
Attention deficit disorder (ADD) is an outdated term for ADHD. The change happened in 2013 with the release of the DSM-5.
Treatments for ADHD
Treatment for ADHD includes lifestyle strategies, therapy, and medication.
Lifestyle strategies that can help you manage symptoms of ADHD are:
- getting enough sleep
- exercising regularly
- eating a balanced diet
A healthcare professional may recommend therapy to treat your ADHD symptoms, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
Along with lifestyle factors and therapy, they may also prescribe medication to relieve your symptoms, which often helps improve your concentration. ADHD medications are classed as stimulants and nonstimulants.
Stimulant medications for ADHD include:
- amphetamine (Adderall)
- methylphenidate (Ritalin)
- protriptyline (Vivactil)
Nonstimulant medications for ADHD include:
- atomoxetine (Strattera)
- clonidine ER (Kapvay)
- guanfacine ER (Intuniv)
You can learn more about ADHD treatment options here.
2. Anxiety or depression
Difficulty focusing and thinking clearly is a common symptom of mental health conditions, including anxiety disorders. This is sometimes called brain fog.
A 2017 study found that 90% of people with generalized anxiety disorder experienced trouble focusing. They tended to have more trouble concentrating when their worry levels were high.
Other symptoms of anxiety include:
- feeling restless or nervous
- sleep problems
Treatments for anxiety
If you live with anxiety, receiving treatment that helps you manage your anxiety may also improve your concentration.
Treatments for anxiety include:
- Therapy: Psychotherapy like CBT for anxiety can help you recognize thought patterns. It can help you learn coping methods to disrupt these patterns and relieve symptoms of anxiety.
- Lifestyle strategies: Regular exercise, meditation, and journaling can help relieve anxiety.
- Medication: Common anxiety medications include beta-blockers, benzodiazepines, and antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs).
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Along with low mood, fatigue, and appetite changes, depression often affects your cognitive (thinking) abilities.
A 2022 study found that depression can affect some components of attention, and a 2019 study found that people with depression had increased distractibility.
Other symptoms of depression include:
- feeling of hopelessness
- loss of interest in activities you usually enjoy
- changes in appetite and weight
Treatments for depression
Like anxiety treatments, therapies like CBT and lifestyle strategies can help you manage symptoms of depression.
Medications to treat depression symptoms are known as antidepressants, which:
- selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- selective serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs)
- atypical antidepressants
If you need help covering the cost of medications, the Optum Perks free Discount Card could help you get up to 80% off prescription medications.
4. Chronic stress
Stress can affect your attention and ability to concentrate.
A 2016 study found that chronic stress affects learning and memory among students. And a 2020 study found that people with chronic stress were slower to complete tasks that required focus than people without stress.
Symptoms of chronic stress, in addition to difficulty focusing, include:
- sleep problems, such as insomnia
- digestive issues
Treating chronic stress
If you’re experiencing stress and difficulty concentrating, lifestyle strategies can help you manage your symptoms. These include:
- sleeping 7 to 8 hours a day
- practicing self-care, which includes exercising, eating a balanced diet, and practicing relaxation techniques
- reducing your consumption of caffeine and alcohol
If stress is part of an underlying condition, such as anxiety and depression, your doctor may prescribe medication. Be sure to talk with your doctor about your symptoms to find the best treatment option.
Trouble concentrating is also a sign of other conditions, such as:
Treatment and management of symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating, will depend on each condition. Talk with your doctor to identify a diagnosis and find the best course of treatment.
When to talk with a doctor
If you’re worried about a recent change in your concentration levels or you have long lasting trouble focusing, consider talking with a healthcare professional or a therapist.
Seek medical attention if you have trouble focusing along with:
- severe fatigue
- problems with memory
- chest pain and headache
- speech problems
Tips to improve focus
There are many things you can do to improve your focus, such as:
- getting enough sleep
- regular exercise
- eating a balanced diet
- avoiding multitasking
- practicing brain training
Read more tips on how to improve your focus here.
We all experience trouble focusing once in a while. But when this is consistent and frequent, it may be a symptom of a health condition, such as depression and ADHD.
There are ways to improve your ability to concentrate, from lifestyle strategies like getting more sleep and exercise to therapy or medications for underlying conditions. It may help to talk with a doctor about the best treatment options for you.
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- What is ADHD? (2022). psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd
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