Sleep deprivation, stress, anxiety, and some medications may cause concentration issues. In some cases, an underlying health issue may be the cause.
Being unable to concentrate may affect performance at work or school and how people are able to do everyday tasks.
This article looks at possible causes of concentration issues in children and adults, treatments, and when to talk with a doctor.
Children and adults may be unable to concentrate for a variety of reasons, such as:
People may experience sleep deprivation or a sleep deficiency if they are not getting enough sleep or if their sleep is of poor quality.
A lack of sleep
- difficulty focusing and learning
- slower reaction times
- frustration or irritability
In children, sleep deficiency may cause:
- attention problems
- impaired school performance
Diet and nutrition
Foods high in sugar and saturated fats may link to problems with concentration and attention.
Certain foods may help promote concentration, such as:
- fruits and vegetables
- foods with a low glycemic index
- amino acids
- polyunsaturated fats
- a healthy ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
- vitamins B1, B6, B12, and B9
- vitamin D
- antioxidants, including zinc, selenium, lutein, zeaxanthin, and vitamins C, E, and A
- adequate water intake
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is a frequent or persistent feeling of anxiety, which can cause:
- difficulty concentrating
- feeling restless
- being easily fatigued
Children may experience anxiety about making a mistake or embarrassing themselves at school. This may cause them to find distractions or avoid completing work.
Separation anxiety may also cause a child to be unable to concentrate if they are away from their family.
If people are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, they
Other symptoms of stress may include:
- feeling angry, sad, or fearful
- changes in appetite
- changes in energy and interests
- sleep problems
- physical issues, such as pain
- substance misuse
Depression can cause problems in concentration, thinking, and making decisions. Other symptoms may include:
- persistently feeling low or sad
- a loss of interest in once enjoyable activities
- changes in appetite
- sleep problems
- fatigue or low energy
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
People may also feel they have to carry out certain compulsions to prevent bad events from happening. Compulsions may distract them from the task they are meant to be doing.
Side effects of medications
Certain medications may affect cognitive function, including memory and attention.
These drugs can include:
- some antidepressants
- pain medications, such as opioids
- chemotherapy and cancer treatments
Alongside the causes listed above, adults may find it difficult to concentrate due to the following:
- Thyroid problems: Thyroid conditions
may causeconcentration problems, memory loss, and impaired intellect.
- Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS): ME/CFS
can causethinking and concentration issues, severe fatigue, and pain.
- Dementia: Dementia
can causememory loss and confusion, and increase the time it takes to complete tasks.
- Multitasking: Multitasking
may affectcognitive function, including attention and memory.
According to the Child Mind Institute, children, especially young children, generally have shorter attention spans than adults and may be more easily distracted.
Certain issues or conditions can cause children to be more distracted than others, though, and may cause difficulty concentrating or sticking with a task.
Difficulties at home or school may cause stress or anxiety for a child, which may impact their concentration.
A learning disorder may make it difficult for a child to concentrate. If a child is having difficulty with a task, they may fidget or delay the task to avoid feeling frustration or embarrassment.
Learning disorders may include:
- dyslexia, which causes difficulty reading
- auditory processing problems, which may cause a child not to hear everything a person says, which may make it seem as though they are not paying attention
Children exposed to trauma or acute stress may have difficulty concentrating and paying attention. Children who have experienced trauma may have hypervigilance, which is a constant state of heightened alertness.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may develop in some children after a traumatic event. Children with PTSD may have difficulty concentrating and:
- an exaggerated startle response
- appear spacey or jumpy
In some cases, being unable to concentrate may be a symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes patterns of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Symptoms of ADHD in children may include:
- frequent daydreaming
- excessive talking
- difficulty resisting temptations
- losing things easily
- making careless mistakes
Symptoms of ADHD in adults may include:
- difficulty concentrating and paying attention
- impulsive behavior or lack of self-control
- difficulty sustaining attention for long periods
- being easily distracted
- being forgetful in everyday tasks
Being unable to concentrate may be a temporary state. People may be able to resolve it with lifestyle strategies and changes.
Certain lifestyle strategies may help improve concentration, such as:
- Getting enough sleep: People can aim for the
age-appropriateamount of good quality sleep each night:
- children ages 1–2 years require 11–14 hours of sleep per day
- children ages 3–5 years require 10–13 hours of sleep per day
- children ages 6–12 years require 9–12 hours of sleep per day
- teenagers ages 13–18 years require 8–10 hours of sleep per day
- adults ages 18 years and older require 7–8 hours of sleep per day
- Eating a balanced, nutrient-dense diet: Consuming a diet with more low glycemic foods, fruits, and vegetables, such as a Mediterranean-style diet,
may help improveconcentration.
- Remaining hydrated: There is
no recommendeddaily amount of water a person should drink per day. However, it is important to remain hydrated to avoid dehydration, which can cause unclear thinking.
- Taking part in physical activity: If possible, people can exercise each day, ideally with
moderate to high intensityexercise to benefit brain health.
- Managing stress: Ongoing stress can affect a person’s mental and physical well-being. People can take certain lifestyle measures to help manage stress.
Steps to improve focus and boost productivity can also include:
- focusing on one task at a time rather than multitasking
- allowing technology breaks
- taking short breaks every 30 minutes or so
- writing out goals and tracking progress
- removing distractions, such as clutter or excess noise
If symptoms persist, or people think their difficulty concentrating may be due to an underlying health issue, people can contact a doctor for advice. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe treatment.
Medical treatments for poor concentration depend on the underlying cause but may include:
- medications for anxiety or mood disorders
- changing the dosage or type of medication if side effects are causing difficulty concentrating
- psychotherapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for mental health conditions, such as depression
- behavioral therapy and medications to manage ADHD
If home treatments for poor concentration are not effective or people have other symptoms they are concerned about, they can contact a doctor.
People can also contact a doctor if they think poor concentration may be a sign of an underlying medical condition or a side effect of medication.
Being unable to concentrate can affect people of all ages for many reasons. Possible causes include sleep deprivation, stress, or a mood disorder.
Underlying conditions, such as ADHD, OCD, or a thyroid problem, may also cause difficulty concentrating.
If lifestyle strategies and changes do not resolve concentration issues or other symptoms are present, people can talk with a doctor for a diagnosis.