Has Anyone Seen My Attention Span?

I thought I left it on my desk. Maybe under that stack of papers. Or, maybe I left it outside on the patio table where I tried to do some work while the sun was shining. It could have ended up in the garage. I went to put out the trash this morning and might have left it on top of the chest freezer. Scary thought: I might have put my attention span in the recycling bin! Then there’s the possibility it’s laying on top of the laundry I folded this morning.

Wait. Was that this morning? What time is it? What day? Should I worry that I can’t stay on task these days? Better question: Can I blame MS for attention deficit?

Paying attention to attention issues when you have MS

I can’t claim a diagnosis of attention deficit disorder (ADD). As far as I know, I don’t have it. But the last year has conspired against my ability to focus, stay organized, prioritize, and manage my time. That’s saying a lot. I used to coach writers on how to manage their time. Time to apply that same advice to myself.

I’m unsure what has spawned this latest trend. Here’s where I can point some fingers with confidence.

The pandemic

It’s an easy target. Not that I’ve had trouble working from home; I’ve been doing that for decades. But the pandemic has brought other anxieties, disrupting relationships, upending activities I’ve counted on for good mental health, like camping (COVID-19 forced the cancellation of all six planned trips last year).

Aging

Hey, I’m no spring chicken! I’m not ready for Medicare either, though AARP has been stalking me for 10 years now. I suppose a drifting mind and my brain’s slower-than-usual processing speed can be blamed for some things. I don’t exercise as much as I should because of pain and fatigue, which doesn’t help. I’m post-menopausal...maybe that has something to do with it?

Multitasking

My mental gymnastics grow ever more rusty when I add too many tasks to the schedule. Right now, I’m juggling multiple writing jobs, gardening high season, post-vaccine social endeavors, the celebration of my youngest daughter’s graduation from college, and a book tour. In other words: Too much.

MS

I used to blame everything on MS, then I pulled back, realizing other situations (like aging and menopause) could cause things like fatigue. But I know now that my fatigue, lack of focus, restlessness, sense of overwhelm, and problems completing projects are all linked to that weird braid of symptoms, side effects, and external impacts that defines my MS.

Can MS and ADD happen in tandem?

Yes. They can exist separately, but ADD can also be considered a symptom of MS.

A study in 2017 found that people with MS had significantly higher rates of attention-deficit than in the general population. The study specifically reported that “compared with controls, patients with RRMS showed lengthened reaction times for simple and focused attention.”1

Sounds about right. I used to sit down with my to-do list and check items off the list with predictable success and efficiency. Now it’s all I can do to remember to make the list, then remember where I left my list, so I can check things off of it!

Attention issues tied to other mental health issues

Also from the 2017 research: correlations between scores for attention deficit, anxiety, and depression.1 As much as 80 percent of people with attention deficit problems experience at least one psychiatric challenge in their lives, with depression and anxiety the two most common.2

Seems legit. The last 18 months have brought more anxiety into my life than I’ve had to face in 10 years (or at least it feels that way). I’ve had anxiety about vaccines, catching COVID-19, coronavirus testing, and my grown children both living alone and dealing with divisive mask policies at their retail jobs.

Depression, of course, has sprung from lack of interaction (physical, especially) with loved ones, and limits on travel which, for me, have been a real mood smasher. We can roll credits on the pandemic for that.

Shifting mindset and accepting the unknown

Fortunately, good change is coming. I’m going camping next week! After that, I’m attending my first silent retreat since January 2020. I’ve done this quarterly for years to generate new creative work and decompress from life as a working mom.

So, can I blame MS for my attention issues? Sure, why not? And I can blame aging, and the pandemic, and trying to do “all the things.” Because ultimately, life’s too complicated in 2021 to easily shift blame to any single cause. Meanwhile, I’m still looking for my attention span. Maybe it’s in the fridge with the new batch of orange juice I made this morning. Or did I make that last night?

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