Understanding Conscious Stress: Two Causes of Scattered Concentration

The conscious part of your mind is much more fragile than your subconscious, meaning that its ability to function is easily lost when it becomes too stressed. One common symptom of a highly stressed conscious is an inability to focus for more than a few seconds on tasks and conversations. This symptom might also be accompanied by physical agitation, such as constant fidgeting, or it might come paired with an opposite effect in which a person seems physically lethargic while he keeps getting a far off look in his eyes as he mentally “zones out.” The inability to focus might be consistent in all areas of life, or it might only be triggered by certain kinds of tasks and/or certain kinds of conversations or conversation partners. Observing these details is an important part of diagnosing whether the conscious’ stress is originating from itself or from a different element.

In children, an inability to stay focused can be easily misdiagnosed as a sign that the child is simply “hyperactive” due to some kind of physiological imbalance. Drugs are then often dispensed to try to sedate the child’s body and cause the child’s behavior to become calmer. A calmer body is then taken as a sign of improvement. But in cases where the root cause of agitation is psychological or spiritual stress, simply drugging the body won’t solve the problem, it will only temporarily mask the symptoms.

In this post, I’m going to explain two common ways that the conscious finds itself unable to function normally. In the first scenario, the conscious becomes highly stressed as it reacts to the stress that other elements are expressing. In the second case, the subconscious intentionally interferes with the conscious’ ability to focus in an attempt to protect the conscious from information that it can’t handle. Let’s now learn about these things in greater detail.

Reactive Stress

When you accidentally ram your toe into a piece of furniture, what happens to your mental focus? As your body internally screams in pain, your conscious panics over the stress your body is under and gives your body’s dilemma its full attention. Here is where you find yourself hopping about the room, clutching your foot, and no longer caring about anything else. If you were in the middle of a conversation with someone, you immediately stop conversing as your conscious fills your mind with thoughts about your toe. If the person you were talking to tries to carry on the conversation like nothing happened, you’ll find their behavior very irritating and probably say something snippy to remind them that you are in the midst of a personal crisis. Until the agony in your toe subsides and you can be sure that it’s not broken, you won’t care about anything or anyone else.

Your conscious plays limited, yet very important roles in your daily life. One of its primary roles is information gathering, but it leaves the interpretation of that information to your subconscious. Another key role that your conscious has is interfacing with other human beings. Your soul, for example, cannot directly communicate with another soul. If your soul wants to get a message to your spouse’s soul, it must relay that message through your conscious. Your conscious then works with your body to communicate that message to your spouse. Your spouse receives the information with his conscious, which then relays that information to his soul. If your spouse’s soul then wants to respond to your message, he has to go through the whole process in reverse: relaying a message to his own conscious, which then communicates to your conscious, etc.. Even the simplest conversation between two humans requires impressive coordination between many elements.

Your conscious is the only one of your elements who prefers to use verbal language as its primary language. It is your conscious that produces most of the verbal thoughts that appear in your mind. Your “thought voice” is actually your conscious talking to itself and its partner elements. Much of what your conscious says or “thinks” are its own translations and summaries of what other elements are expressing. For example, your eyes see a distinctive looking car driving down the street towards your house. Your conscious relays that information to your subconscious. Your subconscious analyzes the data and recognizes the car as belonging to your very troublesome aunt–the one with the entitled attitude who only shows up when she wants something from you. Your subconscious feels threatened by your aunt, so it immediately alerts all of your elements that danger is incoming. Your conscious translates your subconscious’ non-verbal communications into the verbal thought of, “Uh-oh, that’s Aunt Stephanie! I’d better hide before she sees me!”

Your four elements (body, soul, conscious & subconscious) are always chattering away with each other, but these communications don’t start impairing your ability to focus on a task until one element is becomes especially distressed. Suppose you eat something that wasn’t quite right and now your stomach is churning nauseously. As your body rushes to neutralize the threat of toxic food in your system, its stress levels rise. As your body’s stress rises, your conscious finds it harder to stay focused on the book you’re trying to read. You keep thinking things like “Wow, I feel sick. Maybe that sandwich I had at lunch had something wrong with it. Oof, I really don’t feel good at all.” As you think these thoughts, your eyes might continue scanning across lines of text, but you’ll suddenly realize you didn’t take in a word of the paragraph you just finished. This is because your conscious has become too distracted to absorb the information.

Now before anyone gets the wrong idea, there are many kinds of incoming information and sensations that bombard you in life, and your conscious is not needed to receive all of them. When God speaks to you, for example, He speaks directly to your soul, and your soul receives His message without any assistance from your conscious. When you pray to God out loud, you are actually speaking your conscious’ interpretations of things that your soul has already said to God. If you think this sounds unnecessary, you’re right. You really don’t need to form verbal prayers to God, because such things are always echoes of what your soul and God are saying to each other. But the fascinating mechanics of prayer is a topic for another post.

When you go to sleep, your conscious is the only one of your elements to shut down. When you develop a full bladder while your conscious is offline, your body will relay this information directly to your subconscious, which will actually wake up your conscious so that you can go to the bathroom and relieve the strain on your internal organ. So don’t think that all important communications get suspended the moment your conscious becomes distracted, because this isn’t true. But while your other elements can perform many tasks without your conscious, your conscious does play a vital role in helping the whole community run smoothly.

Think of your conscious like the expert pilot who you’ve hired to fly you around in your private jet. Sure, in an emergency situation you could try to fly the jet yourself, but things won’t go as smoothly as they do when your skilled pilot does his job. In the same way, your subconscious has the ability to drive your body around and manage verbal communication with others if it has to. But it much prefers to leave those tasks to an element that specializes in them, and that element is your conscious.

In cases of reactive stress, your conscious becomes so distracted by what’s happening with one of its partner elements that it drops the task it was focused on. Now clearly some tasks are more dangerous to drop than others. If your conscious checks out while you’re driving, for example, you could end up in a collision. If your conscious checks out while you’re trying to dial a phone number, it might just be a momentary annoyance.

How long your conscious remains distracted and what kinds of tasks it will be willing to interrupt depends on which element is distracting it and how upset that element is. Because your conscious works very closely with your body to carry out its daily tasks, it finds body stress moderately upsetting. Because your conscious feels the least reliant on your soul, it finds soul stress the least upsetting. But when it comes to your subconscious, things are different. While your body feels like a teammate to your conscious, and your soul feels like an observer, your subconscious feels like a critical guardian and guide. This makes your subconscious’ well-being feel extremely important to your conscious, and it will become quite panicked if it detects too much stress from your subconscious.

The fact that your conscious is so reactive to your subconscious raises a risk of your conscious becoming too frazzled to function if it knows too much about what your subconscious is up to. Because your subconscious wants to keep your entire system running as smoothly as possible, it wants to keep your sensitive conscious as calm as possible.

Deceiving the Conscious

Suppose you are a father with major worries on your mind. You have a very perceptive young son who is always studying you and basing his own reactions to life on how stressed you do or don’t seem. You know that your little boy simply doesn’t have the resources to deal with adult problems, so what can you do to protect your son from your personal stress? You’ll have to lie to him–a lot. You’ll have to make an intentional effort to act like you are calm, happy, and relaxed when you’re around him so that he won’t pick up on how upset you really are. You’ll have to hide the truth of how you feel and what you’re thinking about from your son. There are many ways to do this. When your son asks you questions that you can’t answer honestly, you can either change the subject or give him a false answer. When you sense that your son is about to ask you a question that you don’t want to deal with, you can try to distract him by bringing up an entirely different subject or presenting him with some kind of puzzle that will take him a while to work out an answer to.

In an effort to protect your conscious from stress, your subconscious uses all of the methods I just described plus many more. It turns out that lying isn’t always the bad thing humans make it out to be. In real life, it’s often a well-timed deception on the part of your subconscious that prevents your conscious from flying into a frazzled panic.

Limiting Memory Access

Your subconscious is very protective over your conscious, and it will go to extreme lengths to protect your conscious’ ability to function. One of the primary ways it does this is by blocking your conscious’ access to your memory archives. Your subconscious manages your memories, and it only shares fragments of memory files with your conscious on an as needed basis. One of the key functions that your subconscious performs when you are sleeping is to wipe your conscious’ memory files clean. During the day, your subconscious shares many memory fragments with your conscious to allow you to carry out tasks and converse with others. When your friend says, “Remember that summer we spent in Italy?”, your conscious will need access to many memory files if it’s going to be able to participate in a detailed conversation about the Italy trip. But your subconscious doesn’t just send over the entire “Summer in Italy” file. First, it scans the file to see if there is any upsetting material. Your subconscious operates by a simple rule of: “If it still bothers me, it will bother the conscious even more.” Italy was mostly fun. But that creepy stalker you met on the beach was certainly not a pleasant moment, and your subconscious still feels agitated over that situation. So when it passes the “Summer in Italy” file to your conscious, it just includes some positive highlights, while the creepy guy on the beach memory is held back. Your conscious receives the file and finds the contents pleasant. You now say to your friend, “Yes, that summer was so much fun!” And you mean it, because you don’t consciously remember anything unpleasant about the trip. At least not until your friend creates a problem by saying, “It really was. But didn’t you meet some creep on the beach who you were worried might assault you?”

Seriously?? Your subconscious finds your friend’s probing very irritating because now your conscious is feeling alarmed and anxiously asking your subconscious if such a memory exists. Here is where your subconscious has options. It can keep the file withheld and tell your conscious that your friend is delusional, but that might not be the best choice if your friend is going to keep pressing you. To make a wise field call, your subconscious has to take its own resources into account. After all, it is still very upset by the fact that it couldn’t come up with any good defense options that night on the beach. That creepy guy did seem like he was about to full on rape you and your subconscious couldn’t come up with any good options. Keeping you safe is one of your subconscious’ top priorities, and it is immensely bothered by gaps in its defenses. If your friend keeps pressing this subject, your subconscious won’t be able to keep its own distress hidden from your conscious. The best strategy is going to be shutting down this line of conversation as fast as possible, so your subconscious now transfers part of the “creepy guy” memory file over to your conscious to confirm this was a real event. But your subconscious also instructs your distressed conscious how to answer your friend, and you say, “Yeah, that was not very nice. I guess no vacation is perfect. Hey, how’s it going with your new puppy?” This classic maneuver gets your friend to change topics. The problem is that now your conscious has access to part of the “creepy guy” file and if it focuses on it, it can become distressed. So your subconscious now works hard to keep your conscious busy with other tasks until it can reclaim the file while your conscious is shutdown during sleep.

Now the entire process I just described happens in a matter of seconds. As you can see, things are very complex behind the scenes with your conscious and subconscious. Your conscious is constantly looking to your subconscious for guidance on how to handle various situations, and your subconscious is constantly monitoring your conscious for signs of distress. When your conscious becomes frazzled because it is personally reacting to stress that it’s detecting from your body or soul, your subconscious will step in to try to help your conscious calm down. For example, when you ram your toe into furniture and your conscious panics over your body’s panic, your subconscious will try to refocus your conscious on something else just to help it calm down. In the midst of hopping around in pain, you suddenly remember that you need to put milk on the shopping list. You then find yourself thinking, “I need to do that right now or I’ll forget.” This is your conscious translating instructions from your subconscious to add milk to the list right now. Your subconscious is giving this strong command to distract your conscious from your body’s stress. After all, your subconscious can handle your body, and it doesn’t want your conscious getting so frazzled. By the time you limp over to the fridge and add milk to your list, you realize that your toe isn’t throbbing so bad. You then notice toast crumbs on your countertop and once again feel like this is something you should deal with right now. So you do. And thanks to your subconscious coming up with these random tasks, your conscious’ panic over your body’s crisis rapidly subsides.

Summarizing Reactive Stress

I know I’m pitching a lot of information at you right now, so let’s summarize. Your conscious is easily frazzled by sensing that one of your other elements (body, soul, or subconscious) is stressed. When it becomes focused on what is bothering another element, your conscious stops focusing on its current task. This is when you find yourself suddenly forgetting what you were doing or saying while you get engrossed in thoughts about something that’s bothering you. This kind of reactive stress is often marked by your thoughts jumping to the same distressing subject over and over and trying to dwell on that subject as long as you can.

When your conscious gets upset like this, it your subconscious that will try to come to the rescue. Your subconscious will often try to calm your conscious by refocusing it on whatever it was doing before it became distracted. If that’s not doable, your subconscious will try to come up with a new task that the conscious can focus on. In very extreme cases when your conscious is completely panicked and no distraction is possible, your subconscious might resort to forcibly shutting down your conscious. A classic example here is when torture victims suddenly pass out in the midst of being physically hurt. In these scenarios, the subconscious can’t physically move the body out of harm’s way, and as long as the body is panicking, the conscious will panic as well. In these cases, it can be a strategic form of damage control to force the conscious to shut down and give the subconscious one less panicking element to deal with. (There are other kinds of emergency strategies that the subconscious uses in cases of physical torture, but I won’t get into those here.)

Forced Distraction

So far we’ve been focusing on situations in which your conscious’ ability to focus is disrupted by its own distress. In this first scenario, your conscious is the one initiating a change of its own priorities. But now let’s talk about a second scenario in which your conscious’ priorities are forcibly changed by a different element.

In this second scenario, you can say to yourself “I really want to read this book,” then sit down determined to do that task. A few seconds later, your mind jumps onto an entirely different topic that seems to have been selected at random. You find yourself focusing on that new topic for a few seconds when your focus leaps again to something else entirely. Between leaps, you remember the task that you originally wanted to do and you try to return to it, only to have your mind sabotage you again. The end result is that you are unable to focus long enough to do many necessary tasks, such as school assignments, or the work that your employer assigns you. This second form of mental distraction often comes paired with an inability to engage in serious conversations, especially with certain people (often family members or romantic partners). This second form of distraction might also come paired with an ability to fully engage in certain non-essential tasks, such as playing video games or working out complex puzzles. Observing someone’s ability to perform certain complex tasks well (such as doing well in a challenging video game) can make it seem like they are faking their inability to concentrate on other things. And yet this isn’t necessarily the case.

Since both of the mental processes I’m discussing in this post result in an inability to focus, it can be hard to distinguish between them. One key difference to look for is that in the first case, the person will be consciously aware of a major worry or crisis that they feel is happening. But in the second case, the person will often be unaware of any specific crisis and honestly not be able to explain their inability to concentrate. This key difference is due to the background mechanics at work. In the first scenario, the conscious becomes distracted by a crisis that it senses. In the second scenario, enormous effort is being put into keeping the conscious blind to crises that are happening right in front of it.

This second scenario usually begins with the subconscious becoming extremely distressed by unprocessed trauma. When it feels overwhelmed by its own distress and is unable to find any solutions, the subconscious can decide that the only way to keep the conscious calm is to keep bombarding it with random thoughts and tasks.

Let’s go back to that situation in which you were the father with major worries on your mind. What if you were so on edge that pretending you were calm simply wasn’t an option? What if you didn’t have the margin to come up with nice sounding lies when your son asks you questions? What if you knew you were likely to lose your temper if your son starts probing you about what’s upsetting you? In this scenario, it would make sense to try to protect your son by keeping him so preoccupied that he simply wouldn’t have the time to think about you. In this second scenario, you’d try to keep coming up with engrossing activities for your son to do so that he wouldn’t try to talk with you. You’d want to create space between you and him so that there would be less risk of him figuring out just how stressed you were.

This is the same kind of strategy your subconscious is using when it bombards your conscious with random distractions to the point that you cannot focus on tasks that you feel you really need to do. The problem is that if you don’t do your homework in school or if you don’t complete the analysis that your employer handed you, you will start having new problems and stresses. So if your subconscious is so interested in protecting you, why would it sabotage your ability to help yourself by preventing your conscious from doing productive tasks?

Remember that this second strategy is usually put in place by a subconscious that is feeling overwhelmed with stress. Your subconscious is well aware of the social punishments that you’ll have to deal with if you annoy certain people with your erratic and “slacking” behaviors. But in these cases, your subconscious often feels forced to choose the lesser of two evils.

People who are dealing with this second form of scattered concentration will often be able to focus very well on certain tasks which seem totally unproductive, like playing sports with friends, playing video games, or binge watching television shows. It’s also common to see negative addictions surface as well, such as drinking alcohol or taking drugs. It’s useful to realize that not all addictions serve the same purposes. Often substance addictions are sought out by minds that are trying to increase distraction, where as addictions to deviant porn are attempts to directly focus on and resolve the issue that the the subconscious feels threatened by. Self-harming addictions are often driven by a traumatized soul that is trying to punish the mind and body for not aligning with its own moral code. You can’t properly diagnose what’s going on by quickly judging surface symptoms. You need to dig deeper and realize that there is at least one element (typically the soul or subconscious) that is viewing the negative behavior as beneficial to its own agenda.

Mental Associations

While your conscious is very good doing what it does, it relies heavily on your subconscious to supply it with guidance and information. What kinds of tasks your subconscious feels able to assist your conscious with depends on how your subconscious is organizing its own memories and current stresses.

While I often use the analogy of files to discuss your memory, in real life, memory organization is often closer to a spider’s web in which it appears that many short bits of thread are attached to the same long threads.

Imagine that the short threads in this web each represent a different mental function, such as doing mathematical calculations or choosing an outfit to wear. Imagine that the very long threads represent negative memories that your subconscious feels very threatened by. In real life, your subconscious forms mental associations that cause many mental processes to feel directly linked to certain kinds of memories.

After being molested by his math tutor, Rick can’t focus on any kind of math problem without the traumatic memory of being molested resurfacing. By themselves, molestation and mathematics are totally unrelated. But Rick’s subconscious has formed a strong mental association between these two subjects. Since Rick’s mind feels overwhelmed by the molestation issue, it wants to avoid anything that causes those memories to surface. Unfortunately, Rick is trying to get a degree in mathematics. Well, this pursuit really isn’t working for Rick’s subconscious. Rick’s subconscious knows what a critical role it is playing in keeping Rick’s entire being functioning. Rick’s subconscious considers its own well-being to be far more important than some educational degree, and if Rick doesn’t stop trying to focus on math, his subconscious is going to become overwhelmed by stress. To protect itself and the elements that depend on it, Rick’s subconscious sabotages every attempt he makes to focus on math problems. Whenever Rick sits down to do his schoolwork, his subconscious bombards his conscious with random, distracting thoughts. As a result, Rick finds himself zoning out for hours at a time until he finally gives up on doing any work. All of this sabotaging is ruining Rick’s goal of becoming a math professor. But as far as his subconscious is concerned, keeping Rick functioning today–even in a compromised way–is far better than undergoing a complete nervous breakdown. Without a functioning subconscious, educational degrees are utterly useless, and sometimes we can’t have both.

Summarizing Forced Distraction

In this second form of scattered concentration, your subconscious keeps interrupting your conscious’ ability to focus on certain tasks because those tasks are too closely linked to your subconscious’ unprocessed stress. When this second strategy is in use, you will be aware of the fact that you can’t focus or complete the tasks that you feel you ought to do, but you won’t understand why you are having such a hard time concentrating. When you try to get in touch with your own stresses, your mind will likely become flooded with a bunch of random yet interesting thoughts that cause you to lose interest in self-analysis.

Your subconscious resorts to this second strategy in an attempt to protect the conscious from sensing how upset your subconscious is. The concern is that if your conscious is allowed to pick up on the intense stress your subconscious is under, it will become so panicked that it will freeze up and become unable to perform any of its essential tasks. Your subconscious wants to keep your conscious online as much as possible. When the conscious shuts down due to stress, a person can lose his ability to communicate with others or maneuver his body through necessary tasks, such as washing and going to the bathroom. Sometimes movies portray a severely mentally ill patient as sitting motionless in a chair, staring into space, and being totally unresponsive to other’s attempts to interact with him. While movies aren’t a good source of accurate information on mental processes, that classic image of someone sitting in a dazed stupor for hours on end is a good depiction of what your subconscious is trying to avoid by protecting your conscious from stress.


So is there any good news here? Of course there is. My goal in this post has been to help you appreciate that complex mechanics are often at work behind behaviors that seem negative or pointless. But no matter how stressed your elements are, there are always ways to start calming everyone down. Subconscious minds that are very stressed tend to leap to extreme solutions in an attempt to prevent worst case scenarios. And while they’re rushing to protect their dependent elements, they often feel they can’t invest the resources they need to find real solutions to their problems. But solutions always exist, and the first step in finding them is to add a hearty dose of self-compassion to the mix.

People who struggle with chronic concentration difficulties often conclude that they are dumb, slow, or mentally inferior to other people. And yet the truth is that great brilliance can be lurking beneath a scattered conscious. I have had the pleasure of knowing some exceptionally intelligent people who were grappling with this kind of issue. As they progressed in processing their traumas, they regained their ability to concentrate for long stretches of time. They were then amazed to see the extent of their own intelligence and quite surprised at the complexity of tasks that they were able to do for the first time in their lives. So never give up on yourself. All humans are brilliant in their own ways. Sometimes you just need to get your internal stress load reduced before your own brilliance can be fully expressed.

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