Do Highly Sensitive People Struggle to Focus?

A highly sensitive person who is distracted and unable to focus looking out the window

The HSP brain works a little differently — which can lead to problems with focus and concentration. Is there a way to overcome it? 

What do you do when you open YouTube? Do you purposefully go to the video you want to watch? Or are you like me and get so distracted that you randomly start watching different videos and suddenly realize: “Wait, what? I wanted to look up that video about that DIY project…” Or perhaps you grab your phone to check the weather and before you know it you are scrolling like crazy through Tiktok or your Instagram feed — whoops!

This happens to me often. When it does, I say to myself, “Rachel, focus!” And you know what? It helps. But the cycle repeats over and over.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. Our entire society has become more “concentration challenged” with the advent of social media. And highly sensitive people, it seems, focus in a whole different way — and may struggle even more.

The Science of Concentration

What happens in your brain when you are focused vs. when you are distracted?

Well, for starters, the brain is actually much better adapted to one of those two modes. That’s because our minds are actually designed to be distracted! That may sound strange, but the reason your brain is distractible is to keep track of what is happening around you — in particular, for threats and opportunities. For example, your mind will switch from focusing on reading to scanning your surroundings, without you noticing it. That’s why however loud noises, movement, flashes of light, or conversations might pull you out of your concentration. (Your brain might also switch from focusing to worrying or ruminating — and internal distraction that is also designed to resolve threats and opportunities.) 

There is a part of your brain that’s designed to help stop this reaction — almost like a set of brakes — consisting of a set of neurons in the visual cortex which fire at a specific brain wave frequency to subdue distraction. However, not all brains are equally equipped to pump these brakes when needed. So whereas your brain is programmed to switch from focus to other tasks, it can be yanked out of even its focus mode if the interruption is too massive, and some people — likely including highly sensitive people — are more susceptible to this. 

Unfortunately, whereas the average person does not understand how focus and distraction work, many big companies do, and they will do whatever it takes to pull your attention to their products, apps and websites. But there are ways to improve your focus. 

Like what you’re reading? Get our newsletter just for HSPs. One email, every Friday. Click here to subscribe!

Do Highly Sensitive People Have a Harder Time Focusing?

I don’t want to throw the blame for every problem on my sensitivity, but when it comes to focus part I think I can play the HSP card. A highly sensitive person’s brain receives so much more information than a non-HSP brain. (Or rather, if you want to get technical, it receives the same amount of information as anyone else, but spends a lot more time and mental resources on that information — which is why we make connections and notice details that others miss.)  

Therefore we see, hear, sense, and experience the world at a higher “volume.” So whereas somebody else only sees what they want to see, we can’t help but see everything around it and also experience it. For example, I might see a YouTube video with the title “How I Lost 10 Pounds by Doing These Exercises” and off my brain goes. I start judging the video, thinking about body image problems, and my mind is off in a spiral instead of searching for my DIY video. Some of the thoughts that flood my mind might inclue:

  • What? Is that real, or is it B.S.?
  • Should I watch the video?
  • She looks so pretty and slim!
  • I wish my legs looked like that.
  • You can’t lose weight by just doing exercises, I know that.
  • But what if these ones really do an amazing trick? 
  • Why do they all use these misleading titles and don’t just tell you the truth?
  • Why is our society so focused on how you look? 
  • Should I watch it anyway?

I get curious, angry, sad, annoyed, self conscious, and/or insecure — all at once. And that’s just with a few seconds on Youtube. Extrapolate that level of intense thinking to every experience, all day long, and you can understand why HSPs struggle to focus. You can also see why learning to focus can be so beneficial to HSPs and our brains: just as we are more prone to overstimulation, we are also prone to information overload.

But that’s not the only factor affecting your HSP focus. 

How “Fight, Flight, or Freeze” Shatters Your Concentration

Another thing that can make it difficult for an HSP to focus is an overactive amygdala in our brains. The amygdala is often referred to as the “fear center” of the brain, although it’s more complex than that — besides governing our fear response, it also governs our response to rewards. (Again, remember that the distracted brain is scanning for threats and opportunities, not just threats alone.) Research shows that with highly sensitive people the amygdala is more easily activated

Is more better? Sorry, not in this case. An activated amygdala causes you to be in an alert, defensive state — or, alternately, an eager, dopamine-chasing state. These responses can be overpowering, because the amygdala is the part of the brain sometimes referred to as the “lizard brain.” It’s a part from prehistoric times. This part of the brain doesn’t understand language but is driven by feeling and gut responses. Its task is to assess if you are in danger or not and it does so by analyzing your feelings. For example, if you are anxious about a difficult meeting your brain might think you are in danger. Then it turns on the “fight or flight” (or freeze) threat response and your body is shaking, with pulse racing, ready to move fast. That might be great for getting away from a jackal but it doesn’t help much with the meeting you’re worried about. 

You can imagine that if this part of the brain is super active you will be more frequently in a state of unease — and more focused on the threats and opportunities that distract people.

I experienced this in winter when my garden was slippery due to rain. I had to move a bush from the front of the house to the garden, dig a hole and replant the bush. Part of the garden is steep and I kept slipping on the wet and muddy grass while holding trimming shears or a shovel. Due to my vivid imagination, images popped in my head of me hurting myself badly with a shovel while falling. I managed to replant the bush, but afterward I got really angry when one of the cats tried to get outside, and in my anger I slammed the door shut and started swearing. At that moment I thought: “What is wrong with me, I could have hurt the cat while slamming the door shut, what is going on, why am I so angry?” And then it hit me: the slipping in the garden. I had felt in danger, my brain got the better of me, and my fight response kicked in so I was in an aggressive state. This moment of analyzing helped me reframe the situation, figure out where my feelings were coming from and help me return to a more relaxed state. (I also apologized to the cat.) 

Okay, that’s a whole lot of distractibility. So what can HSPs do to avoid distraction — especially emotional, fear-based distraction — and find calm focus instead?

How to Train Your Brain

It’s possible to train your brain to focus more, and doing so is a massive win for your mental health. That’s because focus is more than just a productivity tool. It can help you get your mind off all that is around you, be a calmer person, and minimize the defensive reaction of an overstimulated brain. 

Brain training can also make you happier, because you can choose to pay more attention to positive emotions than you do to negative emotions. If you train your brain to pay more attention to the good in your life, it will discard negative experiences more easily. Besides that, meditation is a helpful tool to calm your brain and make it less prone to lose its focus

The most common tactic people suggest to train your brain — especially for focus — is to mediate. I however don’t like meditation and I am not good at it. So I began to look for other activities that also help you enter a state of concentration in which there is no room for thinking about random stuff. So if you can find another activity that does the trick: go for it! For me that is drawing and painting. I will be so occupied with my drawing or with the paint, I have no time to think about family issues, situations at work or other affairs. 

Some activities that do the job well include: 

  • Dancing
  • Yoga
  • Any art form, whether it be sculpting, painting, or designing tattoos
  • Jogging, cycling, or walking 
  • Cooking
  • Playing a musical instrument 
  • Doing laps in a swimming pool

What these activities have in common is that they are either solitary activities or activities done without talking to others around you, they are physical activities that help ground you in what you are doing, and all of them either give the mind room to wander and run out of thoughts or else demand the mind’s full attention, leaving no room for anything else. In this way, all of them can be meditative without ever needing to meditate. 

Our partner, HSP therapist Julie Bjelland, also offers a Brain Training Class for HSPs that not only improves focus and calm, but helps you put an end to high stress, feelings of overwhelm and even anxiety. You can learn more about Bjelland’s brain training class here. 

Need to Calm Your Sensitive Nervous System? 

HSPs often live with high levels of anxiety, sensory overload and stress — and negative emotions can overwhelm us. But what if you could finally feel calm instead?

That’s what you’ll find in this powerful online course by Julie Bjelland, one of the top HSP therapists in the world. You’ll learn to turn off the racing thoughts, end emotional flooding, eliminate sensory overload, and finally make space for your sensitive gifts to shine.

Stop feeling held back and start to feel confident you can handle anything. Check out this “HSP Toolbox” and start making a change today. Click here to learn more.

6 Simple Ways to Increase Focus

If you don’t want to add a whole extra activity to your life, you can pay attention (be mindful) to what you are doing as a way of focusing. You can apply this concept of focus in at least six different ways:

  1. First finish a task before heading to the next. Clean up the mess, clear your desk and then move on. Leaving a task unfinished is similar to ending a TV show on a cliffhanger: your can’t get it out of your head and your brain can’t move on until you get closure. If a task is so big it must take multiple sessions to complete, then find “cognitive stopping points” like finishing a chapter of a book or completing a level on a video game.
  2. Make sure you have a tidy and relaxed environment. No distractions, good lighting, nice smells, no mess in sight. Cleaning itself can be a meditative activity, but more importantly, reducing clutter in your environment also reduces distractions in your visual field and in your mind. 
  3. Reduce the amount of people you interact with. Choose a few good friends, just a handful of friendly coworkers with whom you share your deepest thoughts with. Save the small talk for everybody else, although we HSP’s don’t like small talk
  4. Keep things simple. Think: what will be the simplest thing I can do in this situation, what will be the simplest solution for this problem? Often, this means accepting that the perfect is the enemy of the good and that a B+ job is good enough for most tasks. 
  5. Focus on your own emotions, detect when you take on the emotions of others and say to yourself: this emotion is not mine, I leave it with the other person. You have enough distractions of your own without letting everyone else’s distractions become yours, too. 
  6. Move slowly. Moving quickly can give your brain a “we are in a hurry, we are in danger or stressed” signal. (Remember, your brain tends to take on whatever emotion corresponds to your physical movement.) If you move slowly, your heart rate and breathing slow down and your brain receives the “I am okay” signal. 

Focus Does Not Limit You

Focus doesn’t mean only doing certain things and letting all the other options pass you by. Diversity is key to living a fulfilling and happy life. Enjoying different flavors, smells, textures, people and surroundings invigorate your imagination and creativity. So please don’t see the advice of focus as a message of narrowing your experiences. It is more about creating a situation of calm and result orientation. We HSPs want to experience the world and all the wonders it has to offer. It is a good thing, but with all the choices and information we have nowadays, it can be challenging for our brain and focus can help us stay on track and achieve our goals. Developing your focus allows you to more fully appreciate the many amazing experiences you have, however varied they may be.

Your HSP Brain Is an Advantage

I can find it challenging to live with my HSP brain, but I realized it can also be a great advantage: I hardly need any time to understand a new concept or app, I detect a lie a mile away, I sense moods and emotions, and I can come up with all kinds of stories and ideas and craft projects. As a highly sensitive person, I can process a lot of information and am able to analyze and dissect it and come up with solutions. It can take me some time to voice my opinion in a meeting, but when I speak it is thought well through. I am learning to appreciate the benefits of my HSP brain and use focus to keep my brain happy. 

Do you have trouble focussing? What helps you? I would love to hear your tips in the comments. 

You Might Like:

This article contains affiliate links. We only recommend products we truly believe in.