• Mental health difficulties like anxiety and depression can affect concentration

  • Difficulty concentrating in turn can affect work and stress levels

  • If you are struggling to manage your mood, find a therapist

Which came first: how you feel or the mood you’re in? Does how you feel affect your mood or does your mood affect how you feel? Either way, there’s no doubt that your mood can affect you, and your ability to concentrate.

Moods are an internal measure of how we are. In psychological terms, a mood is an emotional state but, in contrast to emotions and feelings, moods are less specific, less intense and less situational. Happy, sad, confident, bewildered, tetchy, calm – we don’t express our moods directly but in the way we think, communicate, behave and see the world.

Concentration takes a certain amount of energy and, when we’re feeling upbeat and positive, that energy is more readily available. Although concentration may look relaxed on the outside, it is easier if you are feeling positive purely because you have more energy.

What is negative thinking?

Aligned to mood, it’s all too easy to get into patterns of negative thinking, which can create an internal distraction when our thoughts get stuck on repeat.

Negative thinking is very distracting; you’re so busy telling yourself you cannot possibly do this job, finish reading that report, prepare a good presentation that you use up all your energy – even before you’ve started.

Challenging negative thinking takes practice. It helps to be aware of how it can present itself, so you can address it. Look out for these pitfalls and challenge them:

  • All-or-nothing thinking: Either you’re a success or a failure. This thinking can lead to crippling perfectionism.
  • Emotional reasoning: Believing that you are your mood, i.e. you feel stupid so you must be stupid. This can lead to …
  • Labelling: You are stupid! (Again, not true.) Challenge this voice in your head.
  • Overgeneralisation: If something negative happens, then it must always be going to happen.
  • ‘Shoulds’ and ‘musts’: Telling yourself you should have done this, or you must have done that.
  • Personalisation: Assuming responsibility, particularly for things outside your control.
  • Negative filter: Dwelling on the downside and seeing the world in a negative way.

How does anxiety affect concentration?

Concentration is compromised when we’re anxious, and lack of concentration is also a symptom of anxiety. It’s easy to see why, because when we are anxious we tend to feel physically jittery and unsettled. It takes a lot of time and energy to manage anxiety, which is itself counterproductive to being able to focus and concentrate for any decent length of time.

If low-grade anxiety escalates it can reach a point comparable to fear, when the freeze/flight/fight response kicks in. If we hit this spot, with its constant surge of stress hormones, our survival is prioritised over our need to think rationally so the thinking part of our brain is temporarily annexed.

The freeze/flight/fight response is all well and good when we really are in a life and death situation, but not when our anxiety thermostat is constantly set to ‘high’. Stressed individuals will always struggle with this, so it’s worth looking at how low-grade or episodic anxiety can erode our concentration and aggravate the problem. It’s as well to be alert to this as anxiety is an increasing problem, and well worth addressing before it escalates further into a full-blown anxiety or panic disorder or depression.

How does depression affect concentration?

Poor concentration can sometimes be a symptom of depression. Understandably, too, if you are preoccupied by negative thoughts, suffer poor sleep, lose your appetite and experience feelings of hopelessness, all of which are symptoms of depression, then your concentration is bound to be affected.

Sometimes depression is reactive – you have good reason to feel low if a relative has died, you have been physically unwell or have lost your job. However, it is the creeping, insidious depression, often for no obvious reason, that can be tricky – but not impossible – to handle.

Be aware of the early symptoms, and that these can be aggravated by lifestyle, and be aware that low-grade physical exhaustion can precede mental depression.

How do I manage my mood?

1. Take note and take action, because mild to moderate depression responds well to various self-help measures

2. Up your daily exercise – even just 20 minutes’ brisk walking helps elevate levels of feel-good brain chemicals.

3. Get a daily dose of daylight – 20 minutes’ in the daylight can make a big difference.

4. Breathing – consciously breathing deeply and calmly reduces feelings of anxiety.

5. Eat regular meals – a seesawing blood sugar level aggravates feelings of anxiety.

6. Take time out from your work routine to relax and clear your brain

7. Keep regular hours and don’t get so chronically overtired that all your stress hormones kick in to keep you going, and then keep you awake when you need to sleep.

But if none of this works for you, see your doctor. CBT shows good results, and modern drugs have their place, too. Above all, seek help if you need it. You can find a therapist on welldoing.org.

Further reading

Depression: the symptoms and when to ask for help

My journey with therapy and chronic depression

Anxiety: when does normal emotion become a problem?

3 simple ways to beat anxiety