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.

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.

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.

Primary care physicians (PCPs) are often the first providers people with depression consult, as common symptoms include feeling listless or poor sleep. Physicians can check for any underlying physical problems that may be causing symptoms. Also, a PCP will likely do a basic depression screening to assess severity (mild, moderate, or severe), while also assessing risk of suicide.

PCPs may prescribe antidepressant medication and can refer you to a depression specialist for further care.

Check out our Good Appointment Guide for tips on getting the most out of your doctor next visit.

Psychiatrists are licensed physicians who treat mental health conditions. Once they finish medical school, they have 4 more years of training in psychiatry. They specialize in mental health and emotional problems. A psychiatrist’s special training combined with the ability to prescribe medications can sometimes help when other methods haven’t. Some psychiatrists also do psychotherapy. They can help you talk through emotional issues that may be contributing to your condition. When used in combination with medication, talk therapy has proven very effective in treating clinical depression.

Your doctor may be able to provide a referral to a specialist in your area. Check out our Good Appointment Guide for tips on getting the most out of your next doctor visit.

Psychologists are professionals who have a doctorate degree in most states. In some states they can write prescriptions, but they mainly provide psychotherapy, or “talk therapy.” They have advanced training in the science of behavior, thoughts, and emotions. They go through internships to learn how to perform advanced psychological testing and therapy. Similar to physicians, they must be licensed in their state of practice in order to provide care. They help patients learn how to cope with mental health problems and day-to-day life issues.

Your doctor may be able to provide a referral to a specialist in your area. Check out our Good Appointment Guide for tips on getting the most out of your next doctor visit.

Social workers need a master’s degree in order to provide talk therapy. They are trained to help individuals with emotional situations. Although social workers have less schooling than psychologists, they can be just as helpful.

When people are having thoughts of harming themselves, suicide prevention hotlines can make all the difference. Crisis hotlines help millions of people every year and offer the option to speak with trained volunteers and counselors, either via phone or text message.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a national network of more than 150 local crisis centers. It offers free and confidential emotional support around the clock to those experiencing a suicidal crisis. You can contact the organization with the following ways:

Phone: 800-273-8255 (24/7)

Online chat: (24/7)


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.

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
  • 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.