Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Why You Can't Concentrate Right Now

By Bonnie Randall

Part of The Writer's Life Series 

JH: Writers everywhere are experiencing something that's far worse that simple writer's block, and for a very good reason. Bonnie Randall shares why it's hard for us to focus right now. 

It has been a wild year. 2020 has impacted the quantity, consistency, and flow of my writing. Productivity has been a challenge because my concentration has been nebulous, jittery.

Unsurprisingly, many other writers and content creators are reporting similar challenges—and as a result I’ve seen multiple articles offering solutions to these issues: ‘How To Stay focused During COVID’, ‘How To Muscle Through the Multitude of World Events And Keep Creating Content’, ‘How To Crank Out a Bestseller In the Midst Of Global Meltdowns (I should probably take a peek at that one). 'Writing in the Time of Covid-19'

While all of these columns are certainly helpful, today I’d like to offer a bit of insight as to why it’s difficult to concentrate in the first place. As in—what is going on, literally, in the brain that has upended our ability to focus.

The Brain, Simplified

Every human brain comes into this world with two primary jobs:
1. Protect the body

2. Feel good
And those jobs are in precisely that order: protection will always outrun feel good in a footrace. Always. No exceptions.

Now enter:

Traumatic Stimuli

‘Traumatic Stimuli’ is anything that registers within one of our five senses as being potentially grievous to our survival. When the brain perceives a threat, it automatically begins to think, plan, and react (simultaneously, and quicker than your heart can take a beat) from the ‘Fear Center’.

Why? Because it’s #1 JOB is, always to ‘protect the body’. 

As such, once the brain is operating from the Fear Center, it becomes hyper-vigilant: trolling on high-alert for danger. Checking the news. Clicking on the latest counts of COVID in the area. Watching clips of civil unease in metro areas. And while the brain is trolling, the body is responding: heartrate accelerates. Blood pressure jacks. The stress hormone cortisol begins flowing through the system, prepping its person to fight-flight-or freeze.

Now, due to so much attention and energy being directed both into and out from the Fear Center, the brain’s other arena, ‘Executive Function’ (where the ‘feel good’ lives, along with logic, discernment, soothing, and reward/pleasure) becomes far less equipped to operate due to a literal reduction in power. 

So while we can still churn out some prose while our world is in its disarray, chances are the amount, the quality, and even the coherency of that prose is nowhere near what we are used to expecting from ourselves. 

This is, understandably, upsetting—especially since it’s likely not just writing that has become a struggle. Virtually any Executive Function task normally completed with talent, dexterity, and proficiency now takes much more effort than has ever been required before. 

A feeling akin to swimming through syrup while, conversely (and largely unconsciously), our Fear Center has its pedal to the metal and is keeping our alertness jacked to the ceiling (although what it is alert for is not what we want it to be alert for).

An Analogy

Being stuck in the Fear Center (due to continual and/or repetitive exposure to traumatic stimuli) is like being in a house where every light is blazing brightly all the time, day and night, while your Executive Function (your ability to create and concentrate) is the someone who is trying to sleep while all those lights are on. It is very difficult to do so—and even when it does, that sleep will be disrupted or feel wakeful due to the constant stream of light.

Exiting The Fear Center

It has taken four short months to condition many brains, the world over, to remain hijacked by their own Fear Center. Sadly, it may take just as long to perform a rescue mission to extract these brains from that place of high voltage.

Earlier I mentioned that many articles are in circulation right now which offer mindfulness strategies to help steer the brain back into the Executive Function arena where creativity can flow more readily, and peaceably. 

Please peruse those articles. Try the strategies. Note the ones that help you most. 

Be disciplined and diligent: your brain has endured four long months of believing it is under attack—and many brains continue to believe they remain under attack. Curate the content on your socials and news outlets. Be gentle with yourself. Re-expose your five senses to content that’s light-hearted, comedic, beautiful, or filled with joy.

And, above all, afford yourself the compassion that comes with understanding: we are all just trying to survive.


Bonnie Randall is a Canadian writer who lives between her two favorite places—the Jasper Rocky Mountains and the City of Champions: Edmonton, Alberta. A clinical counselor who scribbles fiction in notebooks whenever her day job allows, Bonnie is fascinated by the relationships people develop—or covet—with both the known and unknown, the romantic and the arcane.

Her novel Divinity & The Python, a paranormal romantic thriller, was inspired by a cold day in Edmonton when the exhaust rising in the downtown core appeared to be the buildings, releasing their souls. The series continues with her newest release, Within the Summit's Shadow.

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Andrew Gavin knows he's a train wreck. Before he even became a detective, Andrew’s first trauma—at only seventeen—occurred when he witnessed a gruesome suicide. Ever since, a delusion he calls The Dead Boy appears when his anxiety spirals too close to the edge…


Goaded by The Dead Boy, Andrew shoots and kills an unarmed teenage bully in what appears to be a fit of rage. Suspended from the force, and awaiting a possible murder charge, he retreats home to the Rockies. There The Dead Boy taunts him daily. Except…


Elizabeth McBrien, the childhood sweetheart he scorned, is back home in the mountains too, and shocks Andrew by revealing that she too sees The Dead Boy. Astonished that the spirit is not a delusion, but real, Andrew is further unnerved when he learns that The Dead Boy has ‘befriended’ Kyle, a gravely ill kid Elizabeth adores.

Now it's specter vs. cop in a race to save Kyle's life, and The Dead Boy insists that Kyle’s survival hinges on secrets Andrew holds about that long-ago suicide. Yet Andrew knows the entire truth will destroy him, and also annihilate any new chance he may have with Elizabeth. But they are running out of time; Kyle is dying, and The Dead Boy is ready to sacrifice anything in order to once again walk among the living…

Within the Summit’s Shadow is a paranormal romance unlike any you’ve ever read. Set in the resort town of Jasper amid the splendor of the Canadian Rockies, this novel combines love, mystery, and a persistent, deeply psychological, very personal haunting. Randall really delivers the goods with this one.”


  1. Love your article Bonnie. Makes so much sense. It's a great analysis of what so many of us are currently experiencing, plus the fact that our faith in a better future has been shaken. We SO need to do what you suggest: "Re-expose your five senses to content that’s light-hearted, comedic, beautiful, or filled with joy." To that I would add: Get off social media, get out into nature and let us all count our blessings, not our problems. Thank you for your wise words

    1. You are welcome and I could not agree more: nature is an antidote for the too-often toxic soup that is social media!

  2. I love how you simply the brain's tasks, protect the body, and feel good. This makes so much sense to me. I find that I have no trouble editing my work, but new content is a whole other animal. Great post!!

  3. This is so true! Only last December, I managed to draft a 37k novella in 18 days, but now even the mere mention of having to revise a simple paragraph makes me swear and tremble inside. We're all just in our survival mode now, and the best we can do is be kind to ourselves.

  4. Wow, what a deep blog! You have some great insight! Even though I don’t have all 5 senses (I am deaf and legally blind), I still can use what I have to focus on positivity. Such as going out for a walk, being surrounded by beautiful trees and sunlight. Also, it makes sense why I struggle with writing sometimes, because of “traumatic stimuli.” I am glad you shared your wisdom. Thank you.

    1. You are welcome, Paige. Sunlight and nature cure more than we can imagine. :)