It’s anxiety, fear, worry, and lack of motivation happening all over. But if there’s one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought upon the world since last year, it’s the general difficulty focusing and concentrating.
One can’t help but wonder: Is it a valid concern after all? Students say they can’t concentrate on their online modules. The overall environment, according to them, is just not conducive to learning. Teachers echo this and think students are simply unwilling to continue learning under the conditions. In the workplace, it isn’t a really different story; managers and staff struggle to stay on track with the work and tasks ahead.
Let’s Talk About the Amygdala
The physiological research of Walter Cannon, according to a story on The Conversation, offers an early explanation of how emotions, negative emotions in particular, take over the human mind. Based on his research, emotions is a physiological warning system, activating a number of structures below the cerebral cortex.
The amygdala, one of the said structures, has received particular attention. It is quickly activated amid threatening stimuli, allowing humans to be wary of them.
Among humans, the amygdala activates automatically in response to social stimuli laden with negative emotions, such that people are shown to be both highly sensitive to the so-called “emotional charge” of their perspectives and unable to ignore it. A case in point: corrupt politicians on television, no matter how we try to avoid them.
While COVID-19 may not pose the same threat as these politicians or a snake on grass, consider for a moment the limited attention capacity carried out in working memory. Here, attention supervises cognitive resources and their allocation.
When the Pandemic Comes Into Play
Previously, the processing of emotions through the amygdala isn’t believed to depend on the attention resources of working memory. Recent evidence, however, points to the opposite: the circuits that connect the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex are important in distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information for the activity being undertaken.
Anxiety research by psychologist Michael Eysenck largely supports this, showing that people who are anxious choose to direct their attention on stimuli tied to the threat, regardless if it’s unrelated to the task at home. The stimuli may be internal (worrisome views) or external, or images thought to be threatening.
What this means: Anxiety and worry can both consume the attention as well as cognitive resources of working memory, leading to reduced cognitive performance, especially when it comes to complex tasks.
Mental fatigue, too, has been shown in research to increase when you perform a task while trying not to respond to external demands at the same time. You’re looking at depleted mental resources, and the difficulty of avoiding moving from work email to COVID-19 news on Facebook.
So You Can’t Focus Thanks to COVID — What Now?
According to Time Magazine, here are several steps you may take to increase your focus and concentration at difficult, rather emotionally charged moments like the pandemic.
- Forgive yourself. Cut yourself some slack. Take the time to practice self-care through eating healthy, sleeping well, and exercising. Nobody is operating at a hundred percent, and you’re still great without doing so.
- Set goals. Setting specific goals, scientists say, allow you to create feedback outside of controlled environments like the laboratory. Instead of vague notions of productivity or focus, decide exactly what it is you want to do, whether for 30 minutes or in terms of word count. This can take you back once your mind starts to drift off.
- Take breaks. Do this outdoors, where nature and greenery are scientifically proven to rejuvenate focus and attention.
- Be mindful. Make mindfulness a daily habit. If you’re struggling to focus, drop everything, close your eyes, and focus on your breath for a few minutes. Slowly, bring your attention to each part of your body with every count of breath. Gradually this will help your brain reset.
- Adjust your schedule. Recognize that your productivity will wax and wane. If you can, work remotely and talk to your manager about adjustments in your work hours. If you work best in the morning, keep your load within the day so you can sign off early. If this can’t be done, be strategic about your schedule and get more tasks done during your peak hours.
Keep posted for more focus and concentration tips and advice on this blog!