By Linda Kelly, MSW, RSW
"I just can’t seem to concentrate on anything. I have so many things to do and I keep forgetting about them."
Enter the voice of reason. Hey, you’re going through something that is difficult. Although you may not see the effects on the outside, your mind is busy doing important work trying to make sense of what you’re going through.
If you have just lost someone, or experienced major change, tragedy, shock, or disappointment, your mind needs to process it. And like a computer, doing all of this processing is going to draw on your energy, which means you will have less of yourself available to do things you normally do. You will be short on energy, probably have a change of appetite (more hungry because you’re aching to refuel, or less hungry because you’re under too much stress to digest food), and changes in sleep patterns (again, more if you’re using too much energy and less if you’re too worked up to relax your body).
You can’t expect to be at your best during these times. Like it or not, you are changing. You are looking at the world through different eyes now; you’re experiencing growth. And any major change often comes with emotional pain, which has been proven to impact the same area of the brain as physical pain. Try concentrating on a chess game when you’re sitting on a nail. I bet your memory and ability to think ahead will be faulty at best.
And like I always say, this is not a weakness. You may be forgetting to acknowledge that with every new experience, life lesson, and change, you must internalize that knowledge and apply it to your life. You have to compare this new information to everything you thought you used to know by recalling it in a variety of situations to see if it still stands.
When I lost a loved one, I had to remember that she was gone over and over again. At the mall, I would remember seeing her at that same table all the time, and feel grief for how I’d never see her there again. Out by the lake, I would remember that she’s gone and would never again see the beauty of the sunset like I could. And I felt that loss hit me again and again, pulling from my energy and resources and making me feel like a failure for struggling to keep up with all the other demands of everyday life.
Until one day, I was out by that lake and it didn’t hurt so much anymore. I remembered, but the pain was gone and it was just a memory. That’s the time when you know that your work is done. Your mind has come to terms, made meaning, applied the meaning to your new perspective, and filed away the information.
When you are under a lot of pressure or emotional strain, your executive functioning (e.g., concentration, memory, organization, etc.) will suffer. It is to be expected because those skills require a significant amount of energy, and stress burns through our energy faster than a gas-guzzling truck on the highway. So remember, you are doing important work whenever you face a major change in your life.
My advice? Cut back on the unnecessary distractions. Face these changes. Lower your expectations of yourself and your responsibilities while you do this work. Sleep, eat nutritiously, seek connection, and take care of yourself. You are the only person who can.
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