- Recent months have been traumatic for many of us, even if we have not personally suffered terrible consequences.
- Trauma is defined as "an emotional response to a terrible event."
- Recognizing the cause of one's trauma and de-pathologizing behavior is an important first step toward change.
Nancy*, a writer, told me she was having trouble concentrating. “I feel like my brain has been hacked. I have trouble getting started, and it takes me twice as long as it should to get anything done.”
Louisa*, a working mom, said, “The smallest thing gets me off track. The other day, my computer wasn’t working. Before, I would have been bothered by it, but not completely thrown. This time, I went down a rabbit hole, spending a ridiculous amount of time trying to find out what I should do.” She finally called a technician, who suggested she reboot the computer. “That took care of the problem. But it took a long time for me to get focused again.”
Roberto*, a statistician, said, “I love working with numbers. During the pandemic, working remotely, I loved being able to work without the distraction of social interactions. I was happy to get back to the office and see everyone, but now I can’t focus or concentrate. And I can’t get myself motivated to get back to work that I love.”
There’s a psychological explanation for why many of us are having difficulty getting motivated and focusing as the pandemic recedes: We have experienced some trauma related to COVID (including physical, financial, social, and emotional dangers and losses) and to political turmoil in our own country and around the world. This doesn't mean we all have PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder); but once you recognize that your inability to focus may be trauma-related, some fairly simple techniques can help.
The American Psychological Association defines trauma as "an emotional response to a terrible event." Psychoanalyst Henry Krystal, one of the pioneers of trauma study, found that a traumatic experience can interfere with the brain’s ability to pull things together, which can make it hard to get started on even simple tasks and to stay focused when you do get started.
For some people, self-care and centering activities like meditating, exercising, and mindfulness activities are enough to get centered and moving forward.
But for some, like Louisa, these suggestions aren’t enough. Louisa couldn’t meditate because she couldn’t be quiet with her thoughts. “My mind doesn’t slow down,” she said. “I just start thinking about everything I need to do. Trying to gently pull my thoughts back to my breathing like the meditation leader says is impossible and just makes me feel like a crazy person.”
It is important not to pathologize your behavior. Experts in trauma treatment note that we all have different reactions and different coping styles, but “even the most acute responses are natural reactions to trauma—not a sign of psychopathology.”
An inability to get started or to stay focused can be one of those natural reactions. While some people are quickly returning to a pre-pandemic lifestyle, others need time to recover old, healthy patterns of functioning. Thinking of it as an injury to your psyche, something similar to what a bike accident could do to your body, can help. Some people get right back on the bike and move on. But if you have strained a muscle, or if you’re anxious about getting back on the bike because you’re worried about having another accident, you will want to allow your body and your psyche to have some time to heal. If you have broken something or hurt yourself badly, you get professional evaluation and treatment. Similarly, you could need to get professional help to manage the after-effects of the past year. But that doesn't mean you're crazy.
No matter how bad the physical injury, after a bike accident you’ll probably need to slowly build up your strength, balance, and self-confidence so you can ride again as well as – or even better than – before the accident. The same is true after a painful psychological or emotional event.
These 5 simple techniques can help restore and improve your post-pandemic ability to focus and self-motivate:
- Break any task down into small parts. Rather than thinking about a project in its entirety, consider a small, easily accomplished task. For instance, if you have a paper to write, consider one paragraph at a time. They don’t even have to go in order, since you can rearrange everything on the computer once you’re finished.
- Allow yourself time. Things move more slowly as you recover. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, either. Your body and your psyche will let you know what speed you can operate at. And if you listen to signals from your body and mind, you’ll recover much more quickly than if you try to follow the pattern someone else has set.
- Care for your body. Eat and drink healthily, and get enough sleep and exercise; but even this can be a difficult process, so break it down into small steps. Eat one healthy thing in one meal. Take one small walk, or if that’s too much, simply stand outside somewhere and breathe in the fresh air.
- Get support. Talk to friends, colleagues, your boss, or a professional. Many of us are our own worst critics, and you might learn that they are far more tolerant of your difficulties than you are yourself. They might also have techniques and advice that worked for them, and that might help you move forward as well.
- Praise yourself for each small step that you take, because every step takes you closer to your goal. Most of us are much better at criticizing ourselves than acknowledging our accomplishments, in part because we’re looking for a big achievement rather than at the small steps that go into any success. So take time to look at and praise yourself for small steps. They will add up in the end to a growing ability to motivate yourself and focus on your tasks.
The ability to motivate and focus is sometimes one of the last brain functions to return after a trauma. But with patience and self-kindness, you can build up the capacity to motivate yourself and to focus as well as, or possibly even better than you did before the pandemic.
* Names and identifying info changed to protect privacy.