Depression and concentration

Major depressive disorder (MDD) can make it difficult for you to focus on daily tasks. You may find it challenging to follow the plot of a novel or TV show. Or you may have trouble remembering complex instructions. These are all normal signs of depression. But many techniques and strategies can help you improve your focus and attention.

The impact of lost concentration

If you find yourself having trouble concentrating, you’re not alone. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, lack of concentration is a common symptom of depression.

The inability to concentrate also makes it more difficult to make even small decisions. A study in PLoS ONE suggests that lack of focus is one reason depression has such a major social impact. When you can’t focus, it’s harder to keep up with relationships and perform well at work.

How depression affects your brain

When you have depression, many parts of the brain become damaged. This includes the amygdala and hippocampus. The volume of the hippocampus shrinks, which affects attention span. The neural circuits also function differently. Multiple untreated episodes of depression usually increase the severity of the symptoms. These changes in the brain make it harder to focus when you’re depressed.

Manage your blood sugar

Poor blood sugar control is a major problem among people with and without depression. Managing your blood sugar more effectively can improve your concentration. A study in the International Journal of Diabetes in Developing Countries suggests that high blood sugar levels have negative effects on depression and cognitive function. Lack of focus and a poor memory are among the symptoms worsened by high blood sugar.

Talk to your doctor about medications

Many people with MDD are already taking antidepressant medications. If you’re not taking antidepressants, your doctor can recommend the right one. But if you’re taking medication and still have problems concentrating, you may need to try a different drug.

Some antidepressants are more helpful in improving attention than others.

  • Bupropion (Wellbutrin) works to increase dopamine. This may have an energizing effect that could boost your focus.
  • Vortioxetine (Brintellix) is a newer medication that has also been shown to improve cognitive abilities including attentiveness.
  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta) is an SNRI medication that can produce improvements in cognitive ability.
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro) is an SSRI antidepressant that can also improve cognitive abilities like memory and attention.

You may also want to try adding another medication to your usual antidepressant. Some people benefit from adding stimulant medications such as methylphenidate (Ritalin) or modafinil (Provigil). Stimulant medications improve your focus as well as the fatigue that’s common in depression.

See a therapist for cognitive-emotional training

Therapy and medication are two standard components of most depression treatments. You may already be seeing a therapist for MDD, but you may want to ask your therapist about cognitive-emotional training. Cognitive-emotional training helps you gain more cognitive control over emotional situations. A study in Anxiety and Depression Association of America found small improvements in attention resulting from this specialized form of counseling.

Get more exercise

Nearly everyone gains health benefits from getting more exercise. But this is especially true for people with MDD. Even if you find it difficult to get motivated to exercise, it’s important to make the effort. Regular exercise lowers blood sugar, which can improve your health and your attention span. Studies such as one reported in the Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research suggest that exercise improves attention span in adults. At least 30 minutes of exercise five times a week is beneficial. If you need a short-term concentration boost, go for a short walk outdoors.

Try meditation and reduce outside distractions

Meditation is well known for improving attention span and focus. A study in Aging & Mental Health reported benefits of meditation to protect against stress in older adults. There’s good reason to believe the same results would be seen in all age groups.

Start with shorter meditation sessions and work up to longer ones as your tolerance increases. If you’re unfamiliar with meditation, many smartphone apps can guide you through the process.

Modern life has many available distractions that make it difficult to concentrate. Multi-tasking makes it harder to focus on just one activity. Choose to work on only one task at a time. Turn off the TV if you’re trying to read a book or hold a conversation.

Challenge yourself

One common feature of MDD is lack of self-confidence. Not believing that you can do something may mean that you don’t even try. But challenging yourself to learn new things boosts your confidence and strengthens your brain.

Although loss of concentration is one of the most common symptoms of MDD, it’s also manageable. Use a variety of treatment approaches and you may find that your attention span improves.