How Can I Correct Inability to Focus?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

I am 19. For the last 5 years i have some problems. It started when i was 14 and was feeling very disappointed of myself because I played tennis very bad and my father was screaming at me and offending me because i played so bad. I was feeling so guilty..and i thought what if couldn’t concentrate anymore, what if i couldn’t focus, what should i do?(I wouldn’t be able to be good at anything, besides tennis where i suck). How would i be able to speak to someone, to take good grades in school,to leard.I thought if i can not concentrate my life is over..i will be useless.When i tried to focus on something i started stressing and started distracting my mind from whatever i wanted to focus on with pictures, or whatever.So i got so stressed and i said to myself oh My god i can not concentrate,i can’t stop distracting my mind whenever i want and need to focus on something.I also thought i will always distract my mind when i try to focus and got so stressed and depressed since then..This last 5 years were very bad. Because i am afraid i can not focus i have become very stressed when i have to talk to someone because i think i will probably not be able to focus to what that persons says therefore i will not know what to say or answer .If i try to read something i get stressed and can not focus to waht i read(this is very frustrating),but if i forgot about this problem i can read and focus very well,the problem is i almost always recall to myself that i have this problem.Every time i have to speak in public or to soomeone unknown i get so stressed..i feel i will explode..my chest tenses, don’t know how i still manage to do it.

I feel everything is my fault,and also i feel everything is against me,i feel frustrated because i can not live my life happy,and very stressed when have to talk to someone.Before this i used to be very smart,i used to focus very well on anything i wanted,but i also felt insecure sometimes but not so bad like now.

I ‘ve been to a therapist but it doesn’t work well,i will go to psychiatrist but i am not sure what to tell him.I don’t know why i can not focus and distract my mind.i feel very insecure because i think” how can i be confident if i can not focus when i want to”.It sounds weird when i say it to someone”i can not focus on anything because i distract my mind when i try to focus”

People would say stop distracting yourself but i can’t and i am scared of this,and stressed.I feel it is my fault,and i feel vulnerable.I feel something is holding me from being happy,maybe it is me but i can not deal with this. What do you think it is and how should explain my problem to my psychiatrist?

A. You started your letter by recalling a negative experience as a teenager when your father berated you for not being a good tennis player. He screamed at you and this caused you to feel bad about yourself and to feel guilty about your performance. This is also the time when you began to lose your ability to concentrate and to focus. It is likely that this event traumatized you and led to your inability to focus.

Now everything you do is interrupted by your inability to focus. This problem has followed you and interfered with so many aspects of your life. Do you see a connection between the teenage tennis incident and your current attention difficulties?

Are you familiar with the concept of “hyper-intension?” The idea was written about by psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning. He writes that when a person intensely focuses on their fear that attention may have the unintended consequence of producing or increasing the fear. In other words, a person’s fear is made worse by their intense focus on it. This may be partly what is happening to you.

The solution to this problem, Frankl says, is to apply a technique called “paradoxical intention.” Paradoxical intention means that you do the opposite of what you would normally do in response to a fear.

Dr. Frankl gives the example of a patient who suffered from sleeplessness. The theory was that the patient’s anxiety and focus on his inability to sleep was the reason why he or she was not able to sleep. He instructed the patient to try to stay awake for as long as possible. Thus if the patient focuses on the opposite of his fear (i.e. trying to stay awake for as long as possible) the intended outcome, in this situation, would be that he or she falls asleep.

In your case, you might be able to apply paradoxical intention to your attention problems. Instead of worrying that you will lose your concentration, as you probably have grown accustomed to in most situations, try the opposite. Whenever you expect that you will lose your concentration, deliberately try not to concentrate. You could also try, in a social situation, to shift your concentration onto what color shirt a person is wearing or what type of shoes they have on. The basic idea is to change the focus of your thought. Not focusing on your fear by focusing on something else may serve to decrease it or eliminate it. These ideas may not work but they are worth trying.

Even if you try the technique of paradoxical intention (whether it works or not) you should continue to be treated by mental health professionals. As for how to explain to your psychiatrist what you are experiencing, you can tell them exactly what you explained so well in your letter, which is that you have a fear/anxiety associated with concentration and focus, you do not feel prepared and you often feel that you are not “good enough.” You could even print your letter (and my response) to give to your psychiatrist because it’s a good description of what you are experiencing.

I hope this response helps you to better understand your problem and to see the connection between a traumatic teenage experience with your father and your current concentration problems. I cannot know if that event “caused” your attention problems but there does seem to be a correlation. Thanks for writing and please take care.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Dec 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). How Can I Correct Inability to Focus?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 16, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/12/15/how-can-i-correct-inability-to-focus/