Well, You’re Not Alone

Ever since COVID-19 began to spread, people around the world have wondered why they are finding it so difficult to focus and concentrate. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, work or study, or even those activities that bring pleasure such as gaming, chatting, or reading. Maintaining your attention span that once seemed routine, suddenly has become a battle.


A quick check shows that between February and May, there has been a 300 percent increase in people searching “how to get your brain to focus,” a 110 percent increase in “how to focus better,” and a 60 percent rise in “how to increase focus.”


Some have resorted to buying apps or paying for services that will help to increase their ability to focus. But has it helped? For many, the problem only seems to be getting worse.


Dr. Amy Arnsten is a Professor of Neuroscience and a Professor of Psychology at Yale University. She has spent her career studying the brain’s higher functions and how they’re affected by different arousal systems. Her work has primarily focused on the impact of stress on the brain.


What you need to know is that the part of your brain that processes “higher functions,” such as critical thinking, inhibiting impulses, and, crucially, here, the ability to focus is the prefrontal cortex. “The prefrontal cortex has got this built-in genie that causes it to weaken with stress signaling,” Arnsten says, “whereas the related stress chemicals strengthen the primitive brain systems.”


When a person is faced with immediate physical danger, the prefrontal cortex shuts down in deference to the more primitive parts of your brain that can respond immediately to protect you. It is as if the brain throws a switch to deactivate the prefrontal cortex when the priority is survival.


“In modern life, this may be like getting cut off on the highway… a dangerous situation where being rapid and reactive can save your life,” she says. “But when you have to be thoughtful, it is very dangerous to no longer be able to have your prefrontal cortex to guide you.”


Appreciating this instinctive brain response helps us better understand our current situation. We are being challenged with a unique type of danger that is ongoing but not acute. So our brains remain more or less “locked” in the survival mode for an extended period, thus disabling our prefrontal cortex to various degrees, which impairs our ability to focus.


Arnsten says three significant factors make Covid-19 particularly potent for cutting off our prefrontal cortex: its invisibility, the lack of individual control over it, and being forced to go against our regular habits to protect ourselves.


So even people who are not staying on top of the pandemic news, and thus feeling less anxious, are still finding it tough to concentrate. Arnsten contends that this also is standard.  Even the general awareness that there is no significant improvement in the situation is stressful and can affect the ability to function.


And for many, being stuck in the primitive parts of the brain results in an overall lack of motivation as well. Arnsten explains that an often forgotten part of our flight or fight response to danger is to “freeze,” which can feel a lot like mental paralysis. “Losing the ability to have motivated, guided behavior can be linked to all these primitive reflexes,” she says.


“Why understanding neurobiology is so helpful is that you can watch yourself in that downwards spiral, and you can say, ‘This is just my normal neurobiology, and I don’t have to blame myself, it’s okay,’” she argues.


Arnsten adds that thinking in this way– being aware and kind to yourself – can help lift you out of these vicious cycles. “It’s completely normal,” she says of struggling to focus. “Your brain is wired to do it.”


But Arnsten is hopeful as well. She says, “the good news is that beyond knowing the neurobiology and cutting yourself some slack, there is a chance that the damage done to your ability to focus may eventually be able to be repaired.”


“The data suggests, with rats, that with time spent not stressed, those connections can regrow,” she explains. “And there is also a human study that shows the strength of connections returned over a period of non-stress.”  The wonder of neuroplasticity (the brain’s ability to regenerate neural connections) is a great source of hope.


In the meantime, what can be particularly helpful to reconnect with our prefrontal cortexes is taking a step or two back. “Perspective gives you a sense of control, so hearing, ‘It’s okay, it will be better, my brain will feel normal again’” can help,” Arnsten says. “I think that’s helpful to have that kind of perspective and gain that sense of control.”