How to Stay Focused When You’re Stressed and Overwhelmed

With distractions in every direction these days, being able to concentrate and feel in control has never been more important. Here’s how to stay focused and zone in on what really matters.

If you’re having trouble concentrating, welcome to the new normal. Almost one year after we first went into lockdown, many of us still struggle all day with distraction. Given our concerns about the pandemic, worries about the economy, and uncertainty about the future in general — not to mention trying to juggle working from home with cooking three meals a day, possibly schooling your kids, and just trying to keep life moving ahead — it’s no wonder we can’t focus on anything. In a recent Harris poll, 78 percent of respondents said the pandemic is a significant source of stress in their lives, and 60 percent said they feel overwhelmed by the problems we’re all facing.

“We can’t focus when we’re anxious and nervous because the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are pumping through our bodies,” says Kristen Willeumier, Ph.D., a neuroscientist and the author of the book Biohack Your Brain. “We’ve got to unplug from all the stress. Taking a time-out from everything we’re worrying about and connecting to our bodies will help us shift from activating our sympathetic nervous system, which kicks in when we’re under pressure, to activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which makes us feel a lot calmer and more focused.”

Here’s how to stay focused, cut through all the mental clutter, and take back your brain.

Start a (Healthy) Drinking Habit

The first tip on how to stay focused: Drink up. Water is an elixir for the brain — you need to consume large amounts to stay sharp. “The brain is made up of 75 percent water, and every day, we lose 60 to 84 ounces just through normal body functions,” says Willeumier. “Even a 1 to 2 percent drop in fluids can affect your ability to focus and lead to brain fog.”

According to the National Academy of Medicine, women should consume at least 2.7 liters — about 91 ounces — of water a day (even more if you exercise regularly). About 20 percent of that can come from hydrating foods, like cucumbers, celery, strawberries, and grapefruit, says Willeumier. The rest should come from good old H2O, preferably filtered (a filter removes common water contaminants). “To keep track, get three 32-ounce BPA-free bottles in different colors, fill them up, and drink that water throughout the day,” says Willeumier. “The morning bottle might be pink, the afternoon blue, and the evening green. When you have a system like this in place, you’re much more likely to reach your quota.”

In addition, treat yourself to a fresh-pressed green juice daily. “It’s a hydrating, nutrient-rich drink,” says Willeumier. “One of the critical things I learned from working with neuron cultures in the lab is that basic metabolic processes produce a lot of acid. I would replace that acidic substance with a slightly alkaline solution that contained lots of beneficial nutrients and minerals, which helped maintain the ideal pH to support cellular health. The next day, when I’d look at the neurons under a microscope, they would be thriving,” she says.

“Green juice, which is also alkaline, provides those same kinds of vital enzymes, minerals, and nutrients that can protect our neurons and create vibrant cellular health.” To start your day with a green juice, try Willeumier’s Morning Hydration Brain Boost: In a juicer, juice four to five celery stalks, one-half to one whole peeled cucumber, a half cup Italian parsley, a half cup baby spinach, and two to three stalks of red or pacific kale. For a little sweetness, add half to one whole green apple.

The final hydration tip in this guide of how to stay focused? Pour yourself some decaffeinated green tea. The healthy brew provides hydration, and studies show it can lower anxiety, boost focus, improve memory, and enhance overall brain function.

Take a Deep Breath

Meditation is a powerful method for increasing your attention span. “It’s one of the fastest ways to shift your brain wave activity from the beta frequency, when you’re super alert, to the alpha frequency, when you’re relaxed and focused,” says Willeumier. In fact, when meditation is practiced consistently over time, brain scans show increased activity in the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain responsible for focus, attention, and impulse control. Other research has found that 30 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation over eight weeks can increase brain volume in the hippocampus, an area essential to learning and memory. (To start a daily practice, try these meditation videos on YouTube.)

To escape all the thoughts racing through your mind when you sit down to meditate, use your breath as a tool, says Willeumier. “When you’re concentrating on a breathing pattern, it takes you out of your head and into your body so you can quiet your mind,” she says. To do it: Take a deep breath in through your nose for a count of six or seven. Hold it for a count of four, and breathe out slowly through the mouth for a count of eight. Repeat. As you continue breathing this way, you become thoroughly present in the moment, and that’s when you’re most focused, creative, and intuitive, says Willeumier. “Little sparks of genius can happen then — you might suddenly get a great insight or idea or solve a problem — because you are calm and centered.”

To put this tip on how to stay focused into action and start a meditation practice, keep it easy and accessible. Try it first thing in the morning: “Sit quietly in bed for five to 10 minutes with your eyes closed, focus on your breath, and see what comes up,” says Willeumier, who does this every day. “That’s the beauty of meditation — discovering the incredible insights that can come from this stillness.”

Prime Your Mind with a Workout

A run or boot camp class will make your memory sharper the next day. And according to psychologist Phillip D. Tomporowski, Ph.D., a kinesiology professor at the University of Georgia, there are two approaches to optimizing this effect: Exercise either before or after soaking in the info you’re aiming to remember. “If you exercise before learning information, the physiological arousal will give you a boost in attention,” says Tomporowski.

Sensory reactions due to increased movement, heart rate, and respiration flow back to your brain, resulting in a spark in neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine; all contribute to this enhanced memory magic. On the flip side, if you study and then exercise, another theory holds that you retain that input better thanks to how the hippocampus — the brain’s librarian — works. Both methods are powerful and have been proved to pump up your recall. So what is the reliable dose that will ultimately help you stay focused? “Twenty minutes at a moderate pace seems to be the region of exercise intensity that systematically produces the effect,” says Tomporowski.

Commit to 30 Minutes of Uninterrupted Activity

Another key pointer on how to stay focused is to do activities that require it. Embrace habits that let you concentrate for at least 30 minutes, says Willeumier. That will teach your brain to zero in and sustain focus. Read an engrossing book or work on a jigsaw puzzle. Choose something that captivates you creatively. “The brain goes wherever we direct it,” says Willeumier. “So when you do something thoroughly engaging, your focus will grow.”

Know and Hone This Concentration Style

How to stay focused amid big distractions? Try what pro athletes do. “Their primary technique for focus is to have a routine,” says Mark Aoyagi, Ph.D., a sports and performance psychology professor at the University of Denver. “You start with a broad vision, then gradually narrow and intensify your focus as you approach competition.”

To train your attention this way, sit and move through different concentration styles. “Take in the room where you are as a whole [broad external concentration], shift to focusing on one object in the room [narrow external concentration], shift to a body scan [broad internal concentration], then shift to a single thought or feeling [narrow internal concentration],” says Aoyagi.

As you develop this skill, you’ll be able to stay in each style more intensely — what Aoyagi calls building the “strength” of your attention — for longer (attention endurance) and shift more easily (increasing flexibility). “The keys are knowing what attentional style is appropriate for the task and then being able to switch to the appropriate one,” he says. For instance, creating a spreadsheet might require intense narrow external concentration as you crunch the numbers, whereas a yoga class might ask you to tap your narrow internal concentration to consciously inhale and exhale on cue.

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Practice Mindfulness

The final tip on this guide to how to stay focused is an activity you’ve probably been told to try a million times: Mindfulness. The practice can help lock in all the attention skills above by boosting your mind-body connection in general. (When you can’t seem to meditate, try this mindfulness-building drill he recommends: Before getting out of bed, cultivate a feeling of gratitude, focus on one intention for the day, then step out of bed and take a moment to feel your feet on the floor.)

As a bonus, mindfulness also trains the skill of meta-attention, or knowing where one’s attention is. “When we don’t have strong meta-attentional abilities, we have the experience of thinking we are attending to the meeting or whatever, and then ‘waking up’ five minutes later and realizing our attention was somewhere else entirely,” says Aoyagi.

Your best bet is to make a regular habit of your concentration drills. “As you improve, you can introduce distractions by having the TV on or music playing, and increasing the intensity: Try doing it in a crowded street or a busy shopping area,” he says.

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