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How to focus during a pandemic, according to someone with ADHD

Do you think you’re likely to finish reading this entire article in one sitting? Or is it, maybe, going to be opened in a new tab to save for later, when you feel better able to focus? If that’s the case, maybe just admit that it’s going to tab graveyard. We’re now six months into a pandemic, and understandably, our brains are fried. There are lots of reasons for this: Stress and trauma, which all of us are going through, have an incredible impact on brain chemistry, due to the high levels of cortisol (your body’s stress hormone) produced over time.

Writing in the New Statesman on our loss of focus back in May, Sarah Manavis asserted that our brain’s prefrontal cortex also weakens with stress signaling, so when faced with danger, it shuts down, making way for the “primitive parts of the brain” that are designed to protect us. While it’s comforting to have an excuse, with no deadline in sight, we need to try and learn how to focus under immense pressure. Being able to get things done isn’t only necessary from a professional perspective: When we’re stressed, we lose our capability to relax or just enjoy things.

If you’re not used to having difficulty focusing, it can be hard to manage. I, personally, have been coping better than expected — not because I’m a type-A focusing machine, but because I already have a litter of badly-behaved puppies inside my skull instead of a brain. In other words, I have ADHD, a form of neurodivergence that affects everything I try to do, from getting work done to having a shower. According to my psychiatrist, my symptoms are in the top 1%, which is quite an achievement.

Just to write this piece, I have had to turn off my phone, block social media on my computer, set a Pomodoro timer and go for a run before I even attempted to sit down. I am also listening to a 10-hour loop of rain sounds laid over the organs and voiceovers from Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion ride. If anything distracts me — my dog, the door, an email — I will forget what I was doing and likely not return to it for a while. The process, ghosts and all, will then start again.

ADHD is a behavioral disorder that, among other things, makes it difficult for people to focus. Its symptoms include carelessness, forgetfulness, restlessness, and being easily distracted. Sound familiar? I asked Russell A. Barkley, a Richmond-based ADHD expert and psychiatrist, whether there was any truth to my theory that symptoms of prolonged stress and fear mimic those of ADHD. He told me that I wasn’t far off: stress can lead to a different form of attention disorder that has best been described as, “sluggish cognitive tempo.”

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It is a decoupling of attention from the external world in favor of preoccupation with mental events, typically problems, concerns and fears,” says Barkley. “It is usually characterized by staring, daydreaming, spaciness, mental confusion and fogginess, slow responses to external events, and sometimes social withdrawal.” Other mental health conditions, which can stem from stress or trauma, can cause similar symptoms to ADHD, adds Los Angeles-based psychiatrist, Matthew Goldberg. So while being stressed can’t actually reroute your brain and give you ADHD, it can elicit similar effects that can be dealt with in the same way.

Whatever flavor your stress-induced brain-melt might be, the things that help my ADHD brain focus might also help you. Everyone is different, but as someone who forgets to eat or shower without strict coping mechanisms, I’ve found a few things keep me behaving like an adult human:

Make lists. Lots and lots of lists

If I wake up and don’t check my lists, whatever I may have to do just flies out of my head. On any given day, I have several different lists: a daily to do list, a shopping list, weekly, monthly and yearly goals, phone reminders. I write down literally anything I need to do that day, even if it’s take a shower or do the laundry. When your brain is failing you, you can’t underestimate just how much you’re likely to forget — a list is the only way, and placing it somewhere you’re likely to see it is even better.

Goldenberg calls this a “compensatory mechanism,” a behavioral change that we can make to overcome the focus-destroying effects of either ADHD or stress. Don’t be afraid to get super specific, too. If you have a big project to do, like overhauling the kitchen or working on a project, break it down into the teeniest, most manageable of pieces. Plus, you can’t beat the hit of striking things off your list.

If you have stuff to get done, minimize distractions — that means logging off

The thing that interferes most with my productivity is, well, everything: social media, articles, cleaning, my dog, talking to friends, emails. I am easily distracted and, like a lot of people with ADHD, find it impossible to return to whatever was at hand. Checking one email turns into checking all of them, talking to a friend turns into a long conversation, starting the laundry means clearing out my whole house...if I’m to get something done, I have to eliminate all potential distractions, and so do you.

Turn off your phone for a set amount of time, set limits on websites you know tend to lead you astray, and sit in a room alone if possible. Even if you were previously pretty able to study or work under strenuous circumstances, we’re living in a time of immense change. Needing more structure in place isn’t a personal failure — it’s extra support to help you get stuff done during unusually challenging circumstances. You’d be amazed how much more attractive work seems once you’ve gotten rid of anything that might be more entertaining.

Plus, a lot of your stress is likely coming from the constant influx of bad news — while it’s important to keep up with what’s going on, too much news can leave you feeling hopeless, vulnerable, and unmotivated. Give yourself set times a day to check the news and Twitter — maybe after everything else is done?

Set manageable goals

With a seemingly never-ending span of time in front of us whose only real finish line can be a vaccine or cure, it can seem pointless to plan for the future. I recently wrote about why the extreme uncertainty of the current moment is taking its toll on our collective mental health, and ultimately, found that having small goals, benchmarks ,and demarcations of time can help.

Thinking about what you want, in any area of your life, and creating things to look forward to and proud of, can make the future seem both less terrifying and more like an actuality. While you can’t really plan very far ahead, little goals, either work-based (finish that project, get praise from a superior, get to inbox zero) or personal (learn to embroider, cook a lasagna, go on a five-mile bike ride) can make that expanse of time seem far less daunting, and ultimately make it easier for you to focus on the now. When you achieve that tiny thing, take a moment to acknowledge your accomplishments, however small – just being alive is an achievement.

Schedule in time for things you enjoy

You need to take care of yourself before you even attempt to take care of anyone or anything else. Regardless of how productive you are, you deserve to feel happy, safe, and loved. Identify things that make you feel better — whether it’s exercise, sex, a long bath, a glass of wine, or drawing — and figure out how to make time for them, even if it means scheduling them in. Actually, that way, they can feel more like goals than indulgences.

“I usually recommend that my patients schedule that thing they are looking forward to early in their day to start the day off on a good note and to set the tone for the day,” Goldberg says. Ideally, he says, there are several small things, that can be scheduled throughout your day. This can help ADHD — and experiences similar to ADHD — “because it activates different senses and allows parts of your brain to rest and feel less overstimulated.”

He also recommends using the Pomodoro technique I mentioned, wherein you work in blocks of 25 minutes and break for 10, to schedule in pleasurable things for your breaks: “You can choose to make the breaks fun and uplifting.”

Forgive yourself — it’s a pandemic, after all

If you’re not at your most productive, either personally or professionally, that’s okay. I only can be because I am so completely used to my brain and body failing me when I need them most and have implemented countless coping mechanisms to make sure I can just live. But let yourself off the hook, have a bath, and try again tomorrow. Experts are conflicted on exactly how long it takes to form new habits, and anything you attempt will take a little while to kick in. Just be patient, and be kind to yourself.