In our day of constant digital immersion, difficulties with focus and attention to some degree have become widespread – and especially pronounced among some. Clearly, difficulties paying attention can be disruptive and challenging both for relationships and for progress in school and work. So, it’s understandable people seek after ways to manage and control attention.
It’s not widely know that there are ways to cultivate longer-term change in attentiveness as well through several approaches we review below.
1. Nutrition improvement for attention struggles. There is new evidence that changes to diet alone can make a difference for attention struggles. Studies have found removal of artificial coloring and supplementation with fatty acid as having a consistently positive effect, with the strongest evidence associated with systematically testing the impact of removing certain foods, as confirmed in a 2017 meta-analysis of double-blind controlled trials (where authors concluded there is “convincing evidence” for tapering off certain foods as “offering novel treatment opportunities”). Likewise, eight different peer-reviewed articles have now confirmed the value of targeted nutritional supplementation for individuals and adults facing serious attention struggles.
2. Physical activity for attention struggles. It might surprise you how much moving around more can help with attention. Yet over and over, the research findings of the last two decades confirm a consistent, measurable effect of physical activity on attentiveness – both of adult, youth and children (see this 2014 summary). One 2008 study found that children (diagnosed with ADHD) taken on a 20 minute walk in the park experienced an improvement in attention statistically comparable to a dose of Ritalin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, getting our bodies moving – and those of our children – can help sharpen, settle and focus our minds! Maybe it’s surprising then, to find out that stopping activity can have the same effect.
3. Mindfulness for attention struggles. Research conducted in 2008 at UCLA has confirmed that an eight week mindfulness class can make a measurable difference in cultivating attentiveness for adults – with other kinds of interventions proven to be helpful for youth. Several years ago, one of our council members organized a randomized-controlled trial of youth struggling with depression, anxiety and attention problems – with statistical confirmation that those taking the mindfulness class had improved attention, along with reduced anxiety and depression, compared with the control group. That’s why we encourage adults to consider any mindfulness training including Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (google these in your area – and you’ll find one! And if you can’t check out Palouse Mindfulness for an online class version; there are also a ton of great mindfulness books, apps, and free practices available). Dr. Lidia Zylowska has led the way in applying mindfulness for adults with attention struggles (check out her book and website here). And for youth, there are an enormous variety of supports for parents and teachers to help children learn the same.
If you’d like a gentle way to get up to speed with how to apply mindfulness to mental/emotional struggles, Mindweather 101 is online course developed by mindfulness teachers with mental health expertise includes 7+ hours of guidance from 32 different mindfulness teachers, clinical researchers and therapists (see bios here) exploring a gentle, and creative approach to intense, painful emotions and dark, disturbing thoughts (click here to access a full written transcript; although the full class is available at Mindweather.org, direct links to the videos are available here as individual class segments; check out our own analysis of sustainable healing themes in the class here).
4. Comprehensive Therapeutic lifestyle change (TLC). Although these separate interventions for attention struggles are promising enough, the real excitement happens when the choice is made to bring them all together in a comprehensive shift. There were those among us who first saw this after conducting a thorough review of anything that had been showing to potentially contribute to chronic inattentiveness – as an attempt to help educate people on these possibilities. Based on a review of 3000 studies, a Strength & Vulnerability Inventory for Attention Problems, that people can download, print off and fill out themselves based on their own individual or family situation was created. Although specific to the child/adolescent literature, this maps on fairly closely to the adult-specific research as well.
Because of how little support there is available for families wanting to try this approach (one mother told us “I can’t find anything out there to teach someone how to make these kinds of changes in the home”), some of us have prepared an initiative to help provide group support and coaching for these families (check it out here to see more details). If that’s something you think could be helpful for you individually – or to your family as a whole, click here to directly sign up for an introductory Zoom call.
In our Resource section we’ve included several powerful books that provide practical guidance in how exactly lifestyle adjustments (including, but going beyond mindfulness) can make a difference in cultivating more attentiveness, for both youth and adults.
5. Healing deeper pains that may be contributing. Over the last decade, there has been a flowering of fresh, innovative approaches to support people in finding deeper healing from the past abuse and trauma that very often influences our present emotional/mental state. Along with help for the grief of losing a loved one, or other experiences of loss, and including various levels of attention struggles that often accompany these experiences, these resources are a valuable tool for recovering emotional stability. Ranging from tailored trauma-oriented therapy to various kinds of body-work focused on similar healing, you may wish to reach out and explore some of these approaches as applied to your own situation. Because the effects of serious trauma almost always go beyond mental/emotional experience to the body itself (The Body Keeps the Score), it can be especially encouraging to consider the cutting-edge science of epigenetics and the exciting research on the brain’s ability to change, known as neuroplasticity – both fascinating discoveries that you may wish to investigate to inform your plans for deeper healing.
If you have questions about any of these options more generally, consider joining one of our online councils offered for individuals, families and professionals. We meet both weekly and monthly, and you are always welcome to participate (to join us for a Community Council meeting go here.)