How do you focus when you’re stressed? The truth is, you don’t.
You know what anxiety is like: Your mind can’t stick to any one topic for more than a few seconds. You shift restlessly, as if settling your body might also settle your thoughts.
Stress short-circuits the mind in all sorts of ways. Before you can learn how to focus when stressed, you need to understand what’s going on in your brain.
Why We Lose Focus When Stressed
When you experience stress — whether the cause is a tiger chasing you or a snarky comment by a co-worker — a chain reaction happens in your brain. Harvard Medical School lays this out in detail, but what’s important is understanding how an emotion can trigger a fight-or-flight response.
Changes begin in the amygdala, a brain area that is responsible for processing emotions. The amygdala then contacts the hypothalamus, which acts as the brain’s command center. From there, the hypothalamus spreads stress signals throughout the nervous system.
The nervous system readies the body for fight or flight. Pupils dilate to improve eyesight. Digestion slows. Pulse and heart rate increase, which can cause jitters. The mind races, constantly on the lookout for threats.
In a survival situation, those changes can keep us alive. But in the workplace, they can do quite a bit of harm.
Why Focus Is Key at Work
Work is full of stressors. If you can’t figure out how to focus when stressed at work, you’re going to struggle.
Stressful work situations where focus is required include:
When you’re talking with a client, you have to focus. But when a client relationship is tense or adversarial, it can pull you out of the present moment. That’s why corporations often focus on a sense of community. A sense of being on the same team creates a sense of comfort, which in turn allows the mind to focus.
Much like client meetings, sales calls can be stressful. People on both sides of the table are trying to put themselves in the best position. Focusing on win-wins can make things easier on everyone: Perhaps one person comes down in price to give the other party more time to deliver on the agreement.
When they hit the market, products should be perfect. That puts a lot of stress on the team. Engineers have to root out bugs. Designers need to make sure the layout works well for everyone. If they don’t know how to focus when stressed, their attention to detail can suffer.
Figuring out a company’s next steps is stressful. People’s livelihoods are on the line, and competitors keep their own strategies secret. Crunching the data without making mistakes requires intense focus.
Nearly two in three people say they find customer service the most stressful aspect of shopping. But that stress cuts both ways: Service people feel pressure to resolve the situation in a way that works for everyone. If they don’t know how to focus when stressed, they’ll have trouble calming the customer and finding a solution.
Whatever your role at work, there’s plenty to stress about. But there are also some easy solutions to the challenge of finding your focus.
How to Focus When Stressed
If you aren’t sure how to focus when stressed, don’t stress about it. Many of the following approaches require little time or money:
1. Tackle One Thing at a Time
Although some people swear they’re good multitaskers, the science says otherwise. The human mind is set up to handle a single thing at a time. Multitasking forces it to change gears, often called “context switching.”
Every time the mind moves to a new context, there’s a lag period. It’s impossible to focus during that period because the brain is in the midst of reorienting itself. That sense of disorientation can compound the stressors that led someone to multitask in the first place.
Meditation can be thought of as the opposite of multitasking: It forces your mind to deeply explore the present moment — in other words, to stick to the task immediately in front of you.
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years to reduce stress and improve focus. It’s free, can be conducted anywhere, and has almost no learning curve. To meditate:
Sit or lie down in a comfortable spot.
Experienced meditators can do it anywhere. But for the rest of us, trying to meditate in a public place like an airport can be overwhelming. Find a comfortable bed or chair and minimize distractions around you.
Focus on your breath.
Don’t try to control it. Just notice: Is it slow and steady? Fast and uneven? As you listen to it, it’ll naturally calm down.
Another way to meditate is to pick a single sense and really zoom in on it. Try to capture every noise you can. What’s the smallest, least noticeable sound you hear?
3. Minimize Caffeine
Coffee and tea might help you focus temporarily, but they’re not a good solution when you’re already stressed. Try cutting back and see how your stress levels respond.
Caffeine is a stimulant, so it engages your fight-or-flight response. If you’re already in that mode, the solution to your focus issues is to relax.
4. Try Supplements
There are all sorts of herbal teas and supplements that might help you focus when stressed. CBD oil, for example, is a popular solution for stress and anxiety. Chamomile and lavender tea are also safe, inexpensive herbal remedies.
Don’t relaxants make it more difficult to focus? Not for people who are stuck in flight-or-flight mode. A little calming effect can go a long way.
5. Go for a Walk
Sometimes, the best way to reclaim your focus when you’re stressed is to simply take a break. If taking a break at your desk is tough for you, why not go for a walk?
Nothing clears the mind like a walk outdoors. Take the opportunity to try one or more of those meditation tactics: pay attention to your breathing, or focus on the natural noises around you.
6. Catch up With a Friend
Humans are social animals. Another great idea for a focus-restoring break is to call up a friend. It doesn’t matter who, so long as you enjoy talking to them.
Try to really listen to the other person. Let yourself react rather than thinking about what you’ll say next. Living in the moment is a great way to reduce stress and rediscover your focus.
7. Read Something Aloud
One of the best proofreading tactics out there is to read aloud. The reason is that it’s easy for the mind to fill in gaps when reading something silently.
Either proofread content of your own, or offer to edit someone else’s work. Treat this as focus training. Each time you spot an error, don’t get stressed about it. Be glad that you noticed it, associating that positive emotion with focus.
8. Try the Pomodoro Method
Working with the Pomodoro method means making a deal with yourself: If you buckle down and focus for 25 minutes, then you get a 5 minute break.
Set out tasks for yourself ahead of time, and then set a timer. When it goes off, set another for relaxation time. Do your best to embrace the work time as well as the breaks.
9. Be Positive
One of the smallest yet most significant ways you can reduce your stress levels is to change your mindset. If you see everything as scary and stressful, it will be. If you tell yourself you can buckle down and get through it, then you really will.
Try paying yourself a compliment. It doesn’t need to be a big one, but it does need to be genuine. A little reassurance can give you the confidence to get back to the task at hand.
10. Ask for Help
If nothing you do to reduce your stress levels or improve your focus seems to help, it might be time to ask for help. Anxiety is a serious medical condition, and it can affect everything from your employment to your marriage.
Start by having a conversation with your doctor. S/he can suggest lifestyle changes, prescribe medications, and if needed, refer you to a specialist. If you aren’t ready for that, it might be easier to hop on the phone:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
- National Institute of Mental Health: 1-866-615-6464
- Anxiety and Depression Association of America: 1-240-485-1001
- American Psychiatric Association: 1-800-357-792
Whether you can do it yourself or need a little help, it’s important to get your stress levels in check. A little stress can light a fire under you, but it only takes a little too much to kill your focus. Learning how to focus when stressed is really about learning how much stress you need to stay on task. Once you’re there, let go of the rest.
More Tips on How to Focus When Stressed
- How to Focus and Maximize Your Productivity (the Definitive Guide)
- 7 Wise Ways to Find Focus and Get Things Done
- How Mindfulness Can Improve Our Focus and Productivity
Featured photo credit: Gabrielle Henderson via unsplash.com