Do you have problems concentrating at work, school, or home?

Do you feel like you are easily distracted?

Do you have difficulty completing tasks?

Do you feel like your mind is racing? Or are your thoughts too slow and disjointed?

These are all common complaints of people with attention problems. However, many people with these problems do not have attention-deficit disorder. My goal is to help people accurately diagnose what they experience as an attention problem, to find out what is causing the problem, and to help find the most effective treatments for this problem.

What is attention, anyway?

Philosophers have struggled with this question for over a hundred years, and it is still difficult to define. I think a good description of attention was written by William James in 1890: “Everyone knows what attention is. It is the taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one out of what seem several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought. Focalization, concentration of consciousness are of its essence.

It implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others.

In research, we often try to break down “attention” into different types of attention, like “selective attention”, “sustained attention”, and “orienting”. Too often, treatment for attention problems is generalized and everyone is diagnosed as having “attention-deficit disorder”.

Treatment for attention problems is also generalized and often does not address a specific type of attention problem. During my initial visit and consultation visits, I work with people to understand if they have an attention problem and if so, what type of problem they have. This is important because you need an accurate and specific diagnosis to design a good treatment plan for your attention problem.

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What causes attention problems?

There are many possible causes of attention problems. Some common causes are :

  • environmental stress (like conflict at work, school, or home)
  • problems with mood (like depression or mania)
  • problems with sleep (sleeping too much or too little, interrupted sleep)
  • medications (including over-the-counter medications)
  • stimulants (including caffeine, energy drinks, etc)
  • medical problems (like brain trauma, liver problems, kidney problems, thyroid problems)
  • attention-deficit disorder (ADHD/ADD)
  • a substance abuse problem

Our doctors will work with you to uncover the cause(s) of your attention problem. Often this involves an assessment of behavior patterns, relationships, medications, and lab work (drawing blood). In some cases, we recommend that people get an imaging study of their brain or see a neurologist as part of their workup. This workup is thorough and may take more than one appointment. It may seem long, but we strongly believe that gathering all this information ultimately results in better treatment and faster recovery.

Why should I go to a psychiatrist to help with my attention problem?

Not everyone needs to see a psychiatrist for their attention problems. If someone has physical complaints in addition to their attention problem, they should consider seeing their primary care doctor first. If the attention problem is very mild and does not significantly interfere with functioning, there are many self-help websites and books available. Sometimes a simple evaluation of your sleep, eating, drinking, and exercise habits may be revealing.

People who can benefit the most from a the assistance of a psychiatrist are people who:

  • have significant problems functioning at work, school, or home
  • have already seen their primary care doctor but continue to have attention problems
  • have had another mental health problem in the past
  • are taking psychiatric medications (including sleep aides)
  • have not benefited from self-help approaches
  • are drinking alcohol or using other substances on a regular basis

If you would like to find out more information about attention problems or arrange an appointment with me, please call 919-636-5240 or email doc@cognitive-psychiatry.com.

*William James, Principals of Psychology, 1890, pp 403-404.