Medically reviewed on March 8, 2022 by Jordan Stachel, M.S., RDN, CPT. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
Distractions are an everyday part of existing in the modern world. Sometimes, those distractions are external, like a talkative coworker or general worldly events. Sometimes, the distractions are internal, whether you’re worried about work or excited for vacation plans.
A lot of the time, not being able to focus goes beyond distractions. The process of concentrating is complex, but it’s generally normal for people to lose focus every so often. However, when you constantly struggle with concentration difficulty, enough that you have trouble finishing routine chores or completing tasks at work or school, you may be dealing with underlying issues. If you’re asking yourself “Why can’t I concentrate?”, read on to find the answer and learn more about how a hormone test can help you identify where your hormone levels are at.
In its simplest terms, concentration is the mental process of focusing on a single thought or physical task. This often tends to get mixed up with attention and attention span. While they aren’t unrelated, attention span refers to the amount of time that you can concentrate on something.
The process of concentrating involves a vast network that engages various regions of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is broadly involved with various aspects of controlling and regulating behaviors. It is particularly responsible for resisting distractions, preventing your brain from wandering, and controlling your natural impulse to do something more fun or more mentally engaging than the task at hand .
Everyone’s brains are wired slightly differently based on physical development, genetics, and a whole host of other factors. That means that some people just deal with concentration better than others. Concentration is part of a group of basic mental skills known as executive function, which encompasses flexible thinking, working memory, and inhibitory control (related to self-control). Your executive functioning naturally peaks around your early 20s and then gradually decreases as you get older .
There are, of course, times when you are simply not engaged with what you’re doing. These momentary lapses in concentration are generally harmless. As with any disorder, the real problems come when your inability to concentrate causes severe issues in your everyday life. This can include failing to accomplish important projects at work or school or neglecting the people you love.
Other signs of concentration issues include:
Essentially, if any of these are prominent enough to interfere with your life, seek help from your doctor.
While aging does affect your ability to concentrate, there are a variety of different conditions and causes that could affect your ability to concentrate.
Probably the best known mental disorder involved specifically with attention and concentration, ADHD is also one of the most common neurobehavioral disorders, among kids and adults alike. The disorder is primarily underlined by ongoing inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity. Some people with ADHD express one more than the other, while others express problems with both .
The symptoms of ADHD are vast and variegated. While ADHD does affect attention and hyperactivity-impulsivity, the way that manifests can look different from person to person. ADHD in adults still requires studies to fully understand the extent of the disorder .
Symptoms related to inattentiveness are similar to what we discussed previously with concentration issues, but it can also include:
Symptoms related to hyperactivity-impulsivity can include:
The exact cause of ADHD is not well known, though research does agree that ADHD is a highly complex disorder. More importantly, it’s generally impossible to diagnose yourself. If you think you have ADHD, talk to your doctor. The disorder can thankfully be treated with medication and forms of therapy/counseling .
Most people think of depression as “being blue,” and while intense sadness is a characteristic of depression, the disorder encompasses a lot more. Depression, also known as major depressive disorder or clinical depression, is a mood disorder that causes constant feelings of sadness and hopelessness . Symptoms include:
Along with its effects on mood, depression can affect your ability to think by altering your cognitive abilities. Studies show that depression impairs your ability to process information and make decisions, and it can negatively affect memory, attention, and concentration. Depression also lowers your executive functioning .
Anxiety is a fairly normal feeling that is characterized by feeling fear, vague apprehension, or intense discomfort. Anxiety disorders occur when anxiety is much higher than typical and an ongoing problem that affects your everyday life .
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common form of this condition. This involves high levels of anxiety occurring every day about a variety of things, like work, relationships, basic daily tasks, money, health, self-image, and more. As you can guess by the name, generalized anxiety disorder doesn’t focus on any singular thing, making it an all-encompassing problem .
Other anxiety disorders include panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias .
Your hormones play an integral role in every aspect of your health, and that includes your brain and cognition. Hormonal imbalances can affect how you think and potentially impair your concentration and attention. Estrogen and testosterone, for instance, are best known as sex hormones, but imbalances in these hormones can contribute to mood swings, memory problems, and impaired concentration .
Cortisol is the body’s main hormone involved with the stress response. Constantly elevated levels of cortisol can potentially damage parts of your brain and contribute to cognitive difficulties, problems creating new memories, and a loss of emotional control .
If you think you have a concentration problem, it might be a good idea to start by getting your hormone levels checked. The Everlywell Women’s Health Test lets you check your levels of 10 key hormones involved with your health, including your concentration and cognition.
Some components of your general lifestyle can also contribute to concentration issues. For example, sleep is extremely important to your physical and cognitive health. Not getting enough quality sleep can hurt just about every aspect of your life, from your memory to your immune system to your concentration. Chronic stress, physical fatigue, dehydration, poor diet, and a lack of physical activity can all potentially contribute to concentration problems.
Many of the above are also closely linked. For example, people with ADHD also have a higher risk of depression and anxiety disorders . Hormonal imbalances may also contribute to depression or interfere with parts of your lifestyle.
Concentration problems can be difficult to actually target because there is a lot of research necessary to fully understand it. If your lack of focus and attention is affecting your everyday life, be sure to consult your healthcare provider.
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3. Adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
4. Depression (major depressive disorder). Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
5. More than sad: Depression affects your ability to think. Harvard Health. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
6. Anxiety Disorders. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.
7. Ali SA, Begum T, Reza F. Hormonal Influences on Cognitive Function. Malays J Med Sci. 2018;25(4):31-41.
8. Children with ADHD at increased risk for depression and suicidal thoughts as adolescents. The University of Chicago Medical Center. URL. Accessed March 8, 2022.