Distraction and restlessness

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Dear Dr. Rachel, I feel so distracted all the time. My mind bounces around from one thing to the next. I’ll start on a project then see a text or email and the next thing I know, an hour has gone by. Even my sleep has become more restless. I don’t remember being this scattered when I was younger. I recently turned 40; is this just part of getting older?

Join the club. It took me longer than planned to write this because of all the competing demands. One might assume that our modern day creature comforts would make us more present and chilled-out than our caveman/woman counterparts, but being hunted down by a lion has now been replaced with our own self-imposed chase.

Sure, you could be distracted, unable to pay attention, overwhelmed by life obligations, dealing with age-related changes, or all of the above. We live in such a frenzied world, it’s hard to know what’s what; there are more ways for our attention to be diverted than ever.

Increasingly I’ve noticed clients tell me they suspect they have ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder). It’s understandably confusing to distinguish between actually having a clinical diagnosis versus simply being human during a time of information overload and high expectations. Your distraction could also be due to anxiety; if so, you’re in good company given anxiety problems are the No. 1 mental health issue in the U.S. What’s going on here? For starters, we give merely lip service to the notion of work-life balance.

You could do a preliminary evaluation of ADHD with a therapist before resorting to a bunch of psychological testing. These entail a series of questions that explore attention skills, hyperactivity and impulsivity. There’s a big genetic link, too; it’s estimated that nearly half of people who have a parent with ADHD will also have it.

Before you slap any labels on yourself (something I’m never a fan of doing), look at your lifestyle. The easiest culprit to start with is your “smart” phone, which could be making you feel dumb with distraction. Do you get alerts for texts, emails and social media? If so, turn those off, or put your phone on airplane mode when you need to focus. Don’t worry, Snapchat will still be there, waiting to waste your time later. Addiction to screens is real. Our phones have become this permanent appendage, as if we’ve grown a third hand. All those alerts are tugging at your brain, which is not able to multi-task, no matter how hard you try.

After assessing your screen consumption, now look at your food and sleep consumption. If you have a high-sugar diet (especially anything with food coloring or artificial sweeteners), that could be the problem. Even straight-up sucrose does a number on the brain, making it hard to concentrate as blood sugar spikes and drops. If your sugar intake is happening before bed in the form of alcohol, that could explain the restlessness. Booze may help you pass out, but you pay the price on the other end when it wears off quickly, waking you up. Unfortunately, sleep tends to be more restless with age. You’d think that getting older — with all its aches and pains — would lead to sleeping more, but it’s just the opposite.

I understand it’s confusing to know if your distraction is due to your biochemistry or if it’s the byproduct of living in a culture on steroids (or both). Whatever the source, I highly recommend you exercise daily to regularly blow off steam and calm your mind and body. Get firm with your time and practice saying “no” to outside distractions and stimulants — whether it be screens, unrealistic expectations or libations. Cheers to that.

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