Bipolar and Concentration Problems
Concentration is defined as "the ability to direct one's thinking in whatever direction one would intend."
We are all aware of mood-related symptoms when coping with our mental health problems. Just a few include feeling helpless and a failure, having no motivation, feeling emotional, eating too much or too little, or having difficulties with sleep.
However, our cognitive symptoms tend to receive less attention. They are just as debilitating and in my opinion, less understood by those around us. These include difficulties with problem-solving, concentrating, distractibility, memory and negative and distorted thinking. All impact work, relationships and every other aspect of our lives.
I was diagnosed with bipolar six years ago and have trialed many mood stabilizers, anti-psychotics and antidepressants to reach my relatively stable state. My illness has had a colossal effect on my concentration and distractibility and I often question how I was ever able to easily complete tasks pre-diagnosis.
Do you know how long I took to write this article? In all honesty, days! I have short bursts of typing where my head is running fast with thoughts and ideas but I can’t hold concentration for long and often flit between other things. Somehow, over time the article emerges! I have to check it many times and it can be a long process, but I love it.
When I started writing this article I asked my Twitter followers how their concentration was affected by their mental health problems. Here are a few responses:
- “Like on Monday taking five hours to watch a 90-minute film.”
- “My antidepressants make me forget words quite often.”
- “I’ve given up trying to read.”
- “I dwell on the fact that I can't focus then the vicious cycle starts up and the panic attack starts, then I end up leaving work early.”
- “I cannot read, watch films, play games & I struggle to maintain long conversations. Ideations/urges also cause my mind to wander off topic constantly.”
Focus Problems With Bipolar Disorder: My Experience
Looking back on the ‘final days’ leading up to my diagnosis, I remember being very irritable if anyone walked into my office and interrupted me. I was intensely absorbed in my work and a single distraction could make me lose my concentration and frustrate me. I also used to continually leave my house and car keys in my front door, sometimes overnight. My mind was never on the immediate task; it was always racing ahead with negative thoughts.
Once I drove my car into a wooden barrier in a parking lot. I wasn’t concentrating and broke my front number plate. Scarily, a few days later I reversed into a tree. It was impossible to miss, I just wasn’t focused. I berated myself constantly and told myself to concentrate harder. I had no idea this might indicate an underlying mental health problem.
We can’t forget that although medication can treat mood symptoms effectively, they can often have a negative effect on our cognitive functions. On my first prescribed antidepressant, it felt as though my mind was short circuiting and I couldn’t keep up with conversation. I was taking figures of speech literally and thought the term "pull yourself together" meant reattaching your arms and legs. I couldn’t process information and my memory was atrocious. It was like my brain was an empty filing cabinet and I couldn’t understand where the files had gone.
I found manic episodes challenging as I was stimulated by anything and distracted by everything. For example, in a supermarket, I was faced with colorful packaging, illuminated lighting, people, movement and noise. I didn’t know where to look and would rush off to whatever was brightest and looked most exciting. Talking at high speed about my big life-changing ideas gave no room for response. Interruption distracted me from my train of thought and sent me into a confused state where I forgot what I was saying, and it was infuriating.