Attention Issues and MS - Yes, They're Real!
When it comes to having a primary neurological disease like MS, I feel like overall, I am still pretty intelligent. I’ve always loved problem-solving as well as learning. But over the years, I have found that when it comes to my attention span...well, I’m a little all over the place. Sometimes, being all over the place can make you feel anything but intelligent, too!
Cognitive changes in MS
According to the National MS Society, “Cognitive changes are a common symptom of MS—approximately half of all people with MS will develop problems with cognition. Loss of myelin around nerve fibers can cause difficulty with transporting memories to storage areas of the brain or retrieving them from storage areas.” It goes on to say that in MS, certain functions are more likely to be affected than others. These functions include memory, attention and concentration (particularly divided attention), information processing, word finding, and so on.
My problems with divided attention
Over the past few years, I have become increasingly aware that when it comes to divided attention, I have problems. It only makes sense after much thought and research that MS could be to blame. Divided attention is defined as, “The ability to successfully execute more than one action at a time, while paying attention to two or more channels of information.” In other words, when we perform a number of tasks at the same time, then we must divide our attention, which in turn may weaken performance.
Difficulty communicating over the phone
For instance, I am beyond horrible at talking on the phone. I feel that overall I am a fantastic multitasker (well, most days), BUT I am so scatterbrained that when I am on the phone, I usually forget the important things I am trying to communicate to the recipient or just sound like a blabbering idiot. I have had to tell friends and loved ones not to be offended if I do not return their calls and text them instead; I’ve found that it’s just so much easier for me that way! I know talking on the phone is a much more personal way of communicating, but I’m better at writing my thoughts and feelings rather than talking. I always have been. And, it comes as a plus for them because I end up making much more sense and won’t forget to tell them anything!
Focusing on a conversation in person
I’ve even realized when it comes to talking in person with someone one on one that there are times my mind is all over the place. It is difficult for me to focus on one conversation when countless other things are fighting for my attention. I can clearly hear and comprehend what people are saying to me, but when it comes to replying, it may take me a minute. I feel like the perfect reply is always on the tip of my tongue, but my brain is flooded with too much stimuli at once, and I lose track of what I want to say. It’s as if my body has to take a minute to catch up before I can come up with a viable reply or answer.
Switching my attention back and forth between tasks
An example would be when I am trying to do housework and my husband is trying to talk to me. It’s not that I can’t talk and do things at the same time; however, if you’re trying to relay something of importance to me when I’m elbows deep in housework, it may not be the best time. And I say this because at the time I’m so focused on my current task that it may take me a second to register the importance of what someone is telling me. It can be difficult for me to switch my attention back and forth between competing tasks, especially when one of those tasks is talking (hello, divided attention). I feel like when things such as this happen that I often have to backtrack through conversations. So, my husband may tell me something during dinner, and hours later at bedtime, I may have to bring it back up because my mind has finally processed it correctly, and I can then communicate how I feel about the situation.
Needing time to process information
I’ve noticed that if I don’t give myself a chance to truly comprehend what I’m being told, or reply too quickly without giving myself a moment to catch up, then I often give a quick and distracted reply. By distracted reply, I mean I then end up saying the wrong things, or even agreeing with things I typically wouldn’t agree with. I frequently get flustered when simply having a conversation with someone because I don’t want it to seem that I don’t care about what they are saying or that I’m not paying attention. But, as I mentioned earlier, sometimes I need a second to process or even backtrack so that I can communicate clearly or even intelligently.
Distractions while reading or studying
This attention issue isn’t just with different kinds of conversations, either. If I am trying to read or study over something of importance, the slightest sound or distraction will throw me off. I love to read, but while reading, there are regular times I may need to reread a paragraph about three times before my brain finally says, “Oh yeah, that’s what it's saying.” Then there is trying to read while listening to music or watching TV - umm, forget about all that. Talk about brain overload! Throw taking care of a one-year-old into competing for my attention, and you’re really out of luck, HA!
Problems with attention and concentration are common
Cognitive problems can arise for several reasons in MS. It just so happens that the most commonly affected aspects of cognition for us are memory, attention, and concentration. Sadly, the ability to process information is often slowed with this lovely neurological disease. I say lovely with a hint of sarcasm! It can become easy for people with our diagnosis to simply lose a train of thought and momentarily forget where we are in any given task.
Minimize unnecessary distractions
So, if you’re like me, and you’re kinda a little all over the place — don’t sweat it! As much as I like to multi-task, sometimes it’s just not possible. And, although my house is very regularly full of distractions with a toddler, sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to minimize unnecessary distractions. If necessary, complete things one step at a time, and make sure you’re getting plenty of rest! It only makes sense that if you’re sleep-deprived then it can lead to trouble with attention. Most importantly: know your limits. Sometimes, our brains are simply tired and just need a little recharging.
Who can relate? "Just because I could do something last year, last month, last week or yesterday doesn’t mean I can do it today. Also, it doesn’t mean I can’t."