How to focus on things that aren't what my brain wants to focus on?
December 13, 2019 6:56 AM   Subscribe

I have a significant source of stress in my life right now, and it's a situation that isn't likely to resolve itself for several months. It doesn't require much of my attention in any given day to actually deal with, but the mental load of thinking about it all the time is just killing me and it is preventing me from focusing on any of the other things I also need to be doing right now. What can I do to allow myself to focus?

I've always been a catastrophizer and someone who is prone to anxiety. I've had a few full blown panic attacks (difficulty breathing, heart beating out of control, inability to fully control my limbs) in the past, and right now I feel like I am having a low level version of that (can control my body mostly, but spend a lot of time sort of ... vibrating, my chest and stomache constantly ache, and I find myself breathing heavily if I am doing anything more strenuous than sitting still) basically all day every day. My brain just spends its time making up new dialogues and arguments and ways to deal with the people who are causing problems.

I used guided meditation to get to sleep at night, and that's mostly working fine -- it distracts my lizard brain long enough for me to fall asleep. If I wake up in the middle of the night I have to do it again to fall back asleep which is not ideal, but at least I am getting some sleep. I can tamp down the panicked feelings a bit by reading novels, as well -- not enough to really enjoy them or eliminate the aching feeling of stress, but enough to get rid of the internal imagination of pending catastrophes, at least.

But neither of those distraction techniques help me when what I need is to be doing something else that's actually productive. I can distract my brain from thinking about my problem, but not enough to allow it to focus on the kind of detailed work that I do in my job. I spend multiple hours a day just sitting in my chair staring at my screen or flipping back and forth between documents without actually producing anything. So my work output is suffering at a time when a bunch of people are relying on me to get shit done, as well.

What focus techniques do you use when you don't just need to not think about one hard thing but really, really need to focus on some other hard thing?
posted by jacquilynne to Health & Fitness (6 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I really empathize with this! A couple things that help me:
-short mindfulness meditations in the morning--helps build up the muscle to clear your mind when you need to
-listening to music while I work--distracts my brain enough because I can't listen to music AND do my work AND worry about the Thing
-setting aside a time of day or venue TO worry about the Thing--talking to a friend, therapy, taking 15 minutes to cover a sheet of paper with all the components of the Thing (and being able to tell myself, at other times, "now is not the time to think about the Thing; you can do that at X time"
-exercise or taking walks
-change of scenery like taking my laptop to another part of the office or even converting my desk to standing

Best wishes to you.
posted by CiaoMela at 7:42 AM on December 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I also struggle with getting things done at work, usually because I'm anxious about some other big thing in my life and can't seem to stop thinking about it. Not sure if the below suggestions are relevant to you but they are things that have helped me.

One thing is handwriting out a to-do list each morning at work, then focusing ONLY on the top item of the list until it's done or I'm blocked waiting for someone else, then move onto the next task.

I've also tried to train myself to recognize when I'm not making any progress on a task and ask myself "why?" -- and it's usually because I'm unclear about some aspect of what needs to be done and don't have the energy/focus to think through it fully. In that case I try to "unstuck" myself by going for a walk and thinking through it, or talking to a coworker.

Listening to music and sipping on beverages also helps ground me.
posted by mekily at 8:33 AM on December 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

I deal with this by reconceptualizing the intrusive thoughts about the irresolvable problem as the distraction from whatever else I need to be doing, rather than as some kind of fundamentally broken default state that by definition is going to require even more distraction to dig myself out of. I mean, it's unfortunate that some fucking dickhead apparently thinks it's hugely amusing to keep on letting off his fucking firecrackers inside my brain at random intervals, but useless noise is what it is, and all it needs is reliable workarounds; it doesn't need to define me.

So when I'm fatigued or annoyed or hungry or under pressure and the useless thought loops crank up, I employ the exact same technique as I use inside a formal meditation session: as soon as I notice that my attention has drifted away from whatever I had intended to focus on, I note the fact of the distracting thought, make a deliberate choice not to engage further with its content, and gently and without self-criticism return my attention to the task at hand. Over and over and over. And over. And over. And endlessly over and over. And if I find myself getting annoyed or bored with needing to do this over and over and over and endlessly over, well, that annoyance is just another distraction: note the fact of it, make a deliberate choice not to engage further with the content of it, and gently and without self-criticism return my attention to the task at hand. Over and over and over.

For me, the essential purpose of a meditative practice has always been the stripping back of the task at hand until all that's left to do is perform this very same attentional switch, over and over and over, in order for it to become generally available as a well-practised and therefore minimally effortful skill. I firmly believe that the benefits of a meditative practice derive squarely from treating the practice as practice. Using it as if it were some kind of numbing agent to be deployed at times of particular need is largely missing the point, and using it as a distraction in and of itself is completely missing the point.
posted by flabdablet at 8:33 AM on December 13, 2019 [6 favorites]

If you drink coffee, switch to Jasmine tea. One quart of that has about 1/4 of the caffeine of coffee. It works differently with smooth muscles and I have better days with it. I noticed out walking, that if I conceptualize, day dream, plan, anything but do what I am doing, it is exhausting. The difference between meditation directed at what I am doing, and distraction is enormous.

Sometimes you have to make up an exercise and even with a prop, to end a background program like whatever it is that is worrying you. Buy a box, get any old little wood box with a lid, put something symbolic inside it, even a little bed, and put this thing to bed in the box. Keep it near you, so you can see you have put the thing to bed. Promise yourself it is near you, see, you are not neglecting it, and let that be it. Be firm, but gentle with yourself, with regard to this solution. When you need to do something about the issue in the box, open it if you like, so you can see you are doing what you need to do about it, then close it, and get back to your regular stuff.

I once had a friend, I walked with. Her husband had been swindled out of a large sum of money and she just couldn't stop walking and talking about it. I told her I didn't want to go out into this splendid canyon any more and talk about the money, so, I suggested we have a funeral for it. She had a little East Indian carved wood box with a hinged lid, she cut up a dollar bill, and put George Washington in a little bed in the box, we found a rock to be a tombstone, and buried the box, and agreed to not talk about the money out walking any more. It had been weeks of "the money" at the time.

Some things are much more important and worrisome than money, if they are physical, then worry exacerbates most physical conditions. If the worries are so extreme they can become a physical condition like you describe. So make sure you get some calcium, and vitamin D, drink enough water, eat a half sandwich on whole grain bread, later in the evening, and commit to getting your rest.

Give yourself a gift of something beautiful to look at when you start to worry, remember to smile when you see it. You have to close around yourself, and let your care keep the other out of your comfortable space.
posted by Oyéah at 10:22 AM on December 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

I feel you on this so much. Three things are helping me get through a similar situation right now:

1. Cardio exercise -- a lot of it, usually while watching TV. It has two benefits -- it chills out my anxiety significantly and it's hard to stress while both exercising and watching something stupid & funny on netflix.

2. I've cut myself a lot of slack on non-essential parts of my job and just focus on the 4 or 5 things I must do and do well in a day. If they're done, then great. If not, then I'm not leaving work yet. But I'm committed to leaving work at a reasonable time so I can exercise after work to make #1 happen. So, I've been getting all my major stuff done even if I have to remind myself to focus constantly.

3. Doing the bare minimum at home. I live with someone else and my job is keeping us fed, so I do cook, clean and grocery shop. But, I'm making the simplest things possible and not taking on any nice-to-have homemaking efforts right now (like, I would like a Christmas tree, but there is no way I'm organizing the getting and decorating of one this year).
posted by snaw at 2:10 PM on December 13, 2019

At work, are you able to use headphones? I find that playing instrumental music in headphones helps divert the wandering part of my brain and lets me focus on work in chaotic environments.
posted by xo at 5:01 PM on December 13, 2019

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