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Having trouble focusing? You’re not alone

Multiple simultaneous crises are making it impossible to concentrate.

The rapid, almost nonstop pace of national events is causing an inability to concentrate among many people.
The rapid, almost nonstop pace of national events is causing an inability to concentrate among many people.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

Is anyone else having trouble … oh, sorry, just a minute, I need to doom-scroll through Twitter and flip over to CNN and study the 14th Amendment and watch the Arnold Schwarzenegger video and read 27 news alerts and e-mail a divorced friend about the ex-wife who contacted the FBI to rat out her Capitol-storming former husband … and what was I saying? Oh yeah, is anyone else having trouble … Ivanka and Jared weren’t letting the Secret Service use any of their half-dozen bathrooms??? ... focusing ... far-right groups are making plans for assaults?

An informal poll taken by the Globe, conducted after the mob attacked the Capitol but before the QAnon congresswoman vowed to impeach Joe Biden, found that the only thing people can concentrate on right now is their inability to concentrate.

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“I’m worried I’m slipping,” said Amanda Ambrose, a Newburyport photographer. “I wander from room to room and don’t really get anything done.”

“I have to work out and meditate twice a day in order to get my dopamine levels high enough just to go through e-mails,” said local writer G.G. Garth.

“I’m dropping balls,” said Mare Senn, a human resources consultant. “I haven’t mailed my best friend’s Christmas present yet. I was supposed to send my brother and sister pictures for a project for my dad’s birthday.”

What’s going on with us? True, things are so bad right now that the nine circles of 2020 look like simpler times. But even so, why can’t we keep filing reports and Zooming and meeting deadlines?

“The human brain was not built to process this much information constantly for this long,” said Barbara Kamholz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine.

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Kamholz says the surprising thing is not that people aren’t functioning well. It’s that despite the fact that we’re dealing with multiple major crises, many people don’t fully grasp the impact that external events are having on their mood states and ability to focus.

“That results in this additional layer of self-doubt,” she said.

There’s also shame. Most people suffering from BRAIN FOG-21 think they’re the only ones stricken. But they are not alone.

The writer Susan Orlean confessed her own distraction in a Jan. 12 tweet.

“... I am having this problem where I can’t keep my mind on a single thing for more than one nanosecond,” Orlean tweeted on Jan. 12. “I’ve never been more distracted/jumbled/jangled. Anybody with me?”

Yes, apparently. Some 13,000 people liked the tweet, including Marco Werman, host of The World, a public radio show and podcast. “I’ll think of something to search for on the Web, and by the time I get to the search engine, I’ve forgotten what I want to search for,” he responded.

Orlean’s tweet also spoke to the Rev. Fred Small, executive director of Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, an environmental justice organization (and yes, he’s also that Fred Small, the folk singer hailed by Pete Seeger).

“A pandemic, climate crisis, and insurrection on top of systemic inequity and racism are not conducive to mental concentration,” he tweeted.

In a phone call, Small used a slightly exaggerated example to highlight the challenge of staying focused. “Imagine you’re tapping away at your computer, doing your work, and you look out the window and see someone being chased by a mob, and you say, ‘OK, I’m going to get back to work now.’

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“We’re not seeing a mob out the window,” he said, “but we do see it online.”

Anim Aweh, a licensed independent clinical social worker in Brighton, says anxiety is the reason people can’t focus. It’s fueled by major ongoing stressors — the pandemic and racial injustice — and the violence that erupted on Jan. 6 and is threatening to escalate, she said.

“People are scared to go to work, scared to walk to their cars,” she said. “Their minds are in a million places.”

A local life coach and healer says the attack on the Capitol took her focus off her work and put it onto relatives who were at the riot.

“My own mother was watching them on TV and cheering them on,” said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous for the sake of family peace. “I cannot work. I cannot read.”

She’s getting “crazy headaches,” she said. “And I’m not even a headache person.”

Welcome to … CDC warns the new virus variant could fuel huge spikes in COVID cases; unemployment claims rise sharply … 2021.


Beth Teitell can be reached at beth.teitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.