Vajra Blue

Mindfulness and Compassion. Understanding trauma in young people.

Mindfulness: dealing with attention deficit trait..


People today are in danger of drowning in information; but, because they have been taught that information is useful, they are more willing to drown than they need be.

If they could handle information, they would not have to drown at all.”
― Idries Shah, Reflections

Information is one thing that is plentiful in the twenty first century. It is said that one week of the New York Times contains more information than the average person, alive just fifty years ago, would have been exposed to in their entire lives. As well as the ever increasing availablity of information, the volume of data available seems to be expanding exponentially, and most of this is unfiltered. This knowledge revolution, while having many benefits, does come with a significant price.

Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) is a term that describes the effects of a persistent state of information overload that can be generated by the digital world. It was first used by psychiatrist, Edward Hallowell, in an article in the Harvard Business Review. He described a state “Marked by distractability, inner frenzy, and impatience…” occuring in business managers that turned “otherwise talented performers into harried underachievers.”

This condition although similar to ADHD, is caused by the environment in which we live and work. In other words it is something that we are doing to ourselves.

It is not only managers in business who are showing signs of this condition. It is increasingly seen, albeit in a slightly different form, in those who spend more than a couple of hours each day using electronic media. Teachers in most schools would recognise this syndrome in their students. One of the main problems with this state of information overload, is that the brain becomes incapable of performing as well as normal. Sufferers show worsening time management, poor decison making, and major difficulties prioritising tasks, and succumb to burnout.

It is a problem of our modern, connected society, and one that is only likely to get worse, unless we develop a more enlightened approach to managing this stimulus overload. While modern man is more connected than ever before, this digital connectedness is occuring at the cost of direct, face to face social contact. Our interactions with the world are gradually being reduced to 140 characters or less.

This disconnection and loss of a sense of community, exacts a significant cost on our mental and physical well being. As a social species, humanity needs close social contact with other people in order to thrive, and flourish. Without the protection that a social world can provide, we are increasingly exposed to the damaging effects of stress and isolation.

The combination of information overload and isolation has both a cumulative, and an additive effect   The sense of security that we get from a close community of friends and family, helps to protect us against many of the problems caused by the stresses to which we are exposed in the modern world. People who show Attention Deficit Trait need to take a step back from the stress caused by this information overload, and to find a way to reduce the dependence on digital technology that both accompanies, and helps to generate it.

If we are able to spend time disconnected from our technology, and instead spend our down time connecting with our friends and families, we can protect ourselves from many of the problems that arise from this condition.

One of the elements contributing to ADT, is the constant interruptions that are caused by electronic media. This leads to an inability to apply the sustained focus that permits us to give our full attention to the task at hand. Consequently our brain spends increased periods in a scattered state, known as Default Mode.

Default Mode is the state the brain enters when we are not occupied. It is the opposite of action mode and is a resting or neutral state for the brain. It is believed to be correlated with times when the brain is involved with introspection and self referential thought. Higher executive functions, such as focus, decision making, and attention are not active at these times. Problems with deactivating this state have been related to several conditions. These include trauma, Alzheimer’s disease, Autism, and ADHD. When the Default Mode is overly active this can result in the excessive rumination seen in depression, and problems coping with chronic pain.

The onset of ADT is gradual. There are no sudden crises, but rather increasing difficulties coping with a series of minor setbacks. At the same time the sufferer is trying harder and harder to keep up. So it should come as no surprise that those who have perfectionistic traits are more likely to develop ADT.

There is some good news however. We can control the symptoms of this condition, both in business men and in schoolchildren, by altering the environment that has brought it on  in the first place.

The first step is to take better care of our physical health. This includes paying attention to our diet; avoiding too many stimulants such as caffeine, or depressants such as alcohol. Getting adequate physical exercise, and perhaps most importantly, ensuring that we have enough sleep. In this way can make sure our brain can function at its best.

When we start to feel under pressure, it is important to take on the easiest tasks first. Completing these easier tasks successfully will make us feel more competent, and capable before we then decide to take on more complex challenges. This helps to counteract the sense of helplessness that both accompanies, and exacerbates, our sense of being overwhelmed.

Another helpful approach is to concentrate on thinking positively. When our mind is full of negative thoughts and emotions, we are not going to be able to perform at our best. Those who work in isolation are much more likely to show the signs of ADT than those with a supportive network around them. Interacting with other people, particularly those we like, helps the parts of the brain that control the executive functions to perform at their best. This will help to counteract the negative effects of increased activity in the default mode network resulting from the stressful triggers of this condition. This is why it is important to build regular contact with other human beings into our daily routine.

It is also vital to take regular breaks away from the incessant demands of our modern technology. Turning off notification alarms, switching phones off entirely, or perhaps choosing to do important work elsewhere, away from possible interruptions, can all lead to fewer opportunities for the brain to be triggered into fight or flight mode. It helps if we can train ourselves to use appropriate time management systems. One of the things that becomes clear when we do so, is that slowing down, and only doing one thing at a time, leads to greater productivity and higher completion rates for the tasks we need to accomplish. Intorducing media free times at home is also a good way to redce useage. Do we really need to be our phones while we eat supper together?

Other simple steps are also helpful, these might inculde making a neutral selection for our Internet home page, and not one which is busy with social media, news feeds, or other persistent interruptions. It helps to clump similar tasks together, so that they can be done at an allocated time of day, and hae less chance to intrude on more important activities.

Some employers go so far as to allocate a few extra leave days for people to use as mental health days. These can be used to recharge our batteries, to finish any other nagging tasks, unrelated to work, that we have been unable to complete, and so reduce our overall levels of stress. Even if our employer does not do this. it remains important to schedule some down time into our lives. It is a particularly good idea to include social activities that require our full attention and focus. This is one of the reasons why joining a sports team, or other social club, has such major benefits on our mental health.

Some recent research into internet use by young people, suggests parents need to help their children monitor their use of social and other media, and to reduce this to a level where it does not interfere with daily living, learning, or meeting friends face to face.

Developing a mindful approach to living is also protective. There are many ways to include mindfulness in our daily routines, from taking a couple of slow deep breaths before we answer the telephone, all the way to developing a daily meditation practice.

A simple way to include mindfulness in our routine is to get out of the office for lunch very day, at least for a few minutes. Where possible, to eat outside so that we can take the time to appreciate the natural environment. It is also sensible to take regular, brief, mindful breaks during the day. If we choose to observe our breath for about one minute in every hour, this should not cause too great a disruption to our usual activities. To sit quietly, in a comfortable position, and to gently observe ten to fifteen breaths, is all this would need to involve, and is a simple way to add fifteen minutes of mindfulness to even the busiest of days.

The benefits of mindful practice include the ability to focus, and to apply sustained concentration on the activities that we are undertaking. These are both elements of our executive functioning, and generate helpful brain activity which will work directly against the altered brain functioning induced both by ADT, and the lesser form that many young people show when that are exposed to digital media for prolonged periods each day.

If we adopt a more mindful approach to life, we can help to protect ourselves from both physical nad mental health problems, as well as helping our children to achieve more.


Author: SandySB

Child and adolescent psychiatrist. Parent. Blogger.

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