Some Reasons for Difficulty Focusing

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Reader’s Question

I am staying back at work to write this because I think I have a big problem and I need help.

As an example, I have been trying to complete a book — any book — since the start of this year, and I’m unable to do so. Although I buy at least three additional books every single week, I still have never finished one. Once I get midway into one, I start a new one, and convince myself that I will come back to complete the first one. I never do.

I am too impatient. I write too fast and make loads of typos, and never have the patience to read through my writings to correct my mistakes. This is actually what bothers me the most right now. I work at a senior level and I make too many mistakes when I write.

What is wrong with me?

Psychologist’s Reply

It must be very frustrating to feel as if your ‘motor’ is stuck in high gear without the means to downshift. It sounds as if you are most concerned about the negative consequences that may occur in your job if mistakes continue. There are several possible diagnoses that fit what you describe, but a more thorough history by a mental health professional and your primary care physician to rule out any medical problems would be necessary to determine what might be happening.

My first concern is that you are buying at least three books a week despite being unable to finish any of them. Sometimes, feeling compelled to buy things, combined with a ‘revved up’ feeling, can be indicative of a manic episode. From what you describe, it sounds like this is the first time you have experienced these behaviors. Typically, a first manic episode occurs in an individual’s late teens or twenties. If that fits for you, consulting with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist is critical in order to prevent an escalation toward more dangerous behaviors. Similarly, if and when you experience any depressive symptoms, it is very important to provide your mental health care professional with details of the symptoms you have written about here. Many times, individuals with the milder form of bipolar disorder (Bipolar II or cyclothymia) can function well in the hypomanic phase of the disorder, do not seek help until a depressive episode occurs, and then report only the depressive symptoms. Neglecting to report both can lead to receiving less effective (and potentially more harmful) medication and treatment.

Alternately, you may be experiencing significant anxiety that could be exacerbated by pressure at work. Sometimes people with anxiety engage in behaviors (such as compulsive buying) that provide some very short term relief, but do not ultimately reduce the anxiety. Having difficulty concentrating, and avoiding tasks that may increase anxiety (such as reading and critiquing one’s own work), can be indicators of an anxiety disorder.

Finally, as a third possibility, if these behaviors feel familiar to you and have affected you in some way throughout your life, it is also possible that you may fit the criteria for ADHD. Many intelligent, successful individuals have ADHD and have managed to use compensatory strategies throughout their school and work life, despite never having been diagnosed or treated. Having ADHD as an adult can be challenging, especially when the strategies that have worked in the past are no longer effective. Visiting with a psychologist and/or psychiatrist may be helpful in determining if this is a viable diagnosis for you, and what strategies and treatment might be most effective in helping you with the struggles you have noticed. A well-published researcher of ADHD, psychologist Russell Barkley, PhD, has a book you might find helpful entitled Taking Charge of Adult ADHD [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

I would encourage you to consult with your primary care physician and/or a psychologist about these concerns. In the meantime, find some support to help you at work. Perhaps a trusted and qualified colleague or assistant would be willing to help proofread your work before submitting it to your clients or superiors. With respect to the compulsive book buying, perhaps when you feel most relaxed, you could brainstorm other relaxing activities or distractions that do not involve shopping or feeling compelled to acquire more books. Experiment with making a list of these alternatives when you feel most relaxed and calm, then refer to the list when you feel the urge to shop for books, and pick something else to try. Give yourself permission to put the books you have already bought away in a ‘wish I could read’ stack, shelf or box. Observe what happens when you let go of the guilt over not having read the books and notice if it reduces any pressure in other parts of your life.

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