Mental health

Mental Health Week: Lack of Focus, Hyperfocus, and Silent Symptoms

Anxiety, chronic pain, OCD, PTSD, depression, really any chronic illness can make focusing difficult. In addition to an inability to focus, conditions like ADHD can lead to hyperfocusing. Lack of focus and hyperfocus are silent symptoms and I think they require a bit more discussion.

It can be hard to focus when your mind is thinking about hundreds of other little things completely unrelated to what it is you need to finish. I’ve mentioned loads of times that my intrusive thoughts from my OCD play along with the constant hum of my generalized anxiety disorder. (It’s that lovely comorbidity that many of us with chronic illnesses know about all too well.) The fact that they play off each other makes it very hard for me to concentrate on certain tasks sometimes.  It’s easy for me to get sucked down a rabbit hole of thoughts and worries–so much so, that my mind is practically a warren at this point.

[Image Description: Blonde girl calmly falling backward down a large hole waving at someone as she tumbles deeper.]

This lack of focus is something that I’ve experienced my entire life. I’ve learned how to cope with it because I spent nearly two decades of my life with my GAD and OCD undiagnosed and untreated. Now that I’m fully aware of what’s happening and I’m being treated, I’ve slowly learned over the last few years that things I’ve always done are actually silent symptoms. The lip picking, the intrusive thoughts, and my inconsistent focus.

I experience two things: lack of focus and hyperfocus.

I do have moments where I fall in the middle and where I can focus the right amount, but I’m often dealing with either the lack of focus or hyperfocus.

When it comes to school work, work tasks, major assignments, anything with a deadline more than one week from the assigned date, I’m often unable to focus until the last minute and then I proceed to hyperfocus for several hours as I work to complete it by the deadline. I do excellent work despite this rush. It actually doesn’t feel like a rush to me. It’s like the eye of a hurricane, and it allows me to focus on details. That said, it’s a major issue and it makes simple things particularly stressful.

I don’t do it on purpose. I vain attempts to work on assignments well before their deadline. I just can’t focus. My mind runs hundreds of miles a minute, picking and choosing everything else except what I need to do. Despite my ability to somehow manage to get an A every single time I have this issue, it’s been a constant struggle. My hyperfocusing and inability to focus have both become such a problem that I’m looking into getting tested for ADHD as I start up classes again in the fall.

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[Image description: black and white gif of brown-haired man, Tyler from twenty one pilots, wincing with his eyes closed singing “I’ve been thinking too much, help me”]
I’ve always excelled in school. I’ve been honor roll, honor society, graduated Cum Laude in undergrad, and earned a 4.0 during my graduate studies. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it to make a point. Children—and even adults—with mental illnesses are often overlooked, particularly if their symptoms are silent.

When I was younger, I couldn’t possibly have struggled in the eyes of some people because I wasn’t what they would call a “problem child”. Because I sat quietly (sometimes until junior high), did my work on time, multitasked well, was creative, and did well in school, the concern about me having an anxiety disorder or even ADHD never came into the conversation. There was no need. After all, I wasn’t showing typical signs of struggling by acting out or horribly failing my classes.

I quietly struggled and did my best to hide it by working extra hard to keep up and not show that things weren’t okay because I didn’t know that there was a) an actual problem I couldn’t control and b) options out there that could help make my classes more accessible. I struggled because I didn’t have accommodations before I entered university. I worked double-time to keep up with my peers. I overcompensated and created coping mechanisms for myself because my mental illnesses went undiagnosed for such a long amount of time that I just assumed the symptoms were just part of my personality, not products of the illnesses themselves. I went to university and spent all of my spoons forcing myself to keep my attention on the professor’s words and mouth during lectures while the rustle of paper, sniffing, whispers, and snack bag crinkles distracted me or made it difficult for me to remember the point I was trying to make in front of the class.

Until recently, I didn’t know that I could quite honestly have ADHD and that that could be the reason for my boredom, quick loss of interest, constant need for new things and experiences otherwise boredom strikes, repetitions, forgetfulness (in addition to the fibro brain fog), inability to focus and hyperfocus, among many other symptoms.

The point is that it didn’t have to be this way. If it weren’t for stigmas and preconceived notions, I could have received accommodations and other tools I needed to level the playing field much earlier. I made it through a great deal and came out the other side pretty okay all things considered. However, there are many out there who don’t and many who don’t even have the chances or opportunities to try. Not to mention there are so many people out there that struggle without knowing what’s happening, without accommodations, and without someone to hear them out.

I just hope that as we move through Mental Health Awareness Week and finish out Mental Health Awareness Month, that we don’t stop the conversation about silent symptoms. Every mental illness has them, and many times they’re overlooked thanks to stigma and preconceived notions.

We have got to remove this idea that someone can’t have a condition because they’re not showing symptoms that we’ve come to associate with it. It’s vital that we remember this after Mental Health Week and Month are over.

What’s more, we have to listen to those who speak out, and truly hear their experiences so that we don’t repeat mistakes and perpetuate harmful ideas.