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Why did I come into the kitchen?: How stress can lead to everyday absentmindedness

Throwing the spoon in the trash and the yogurt cup in the sink or leaving the light on may be harmless distractions that stem from a scattered personality, but they can also be a symptom of anxiety

Woman in kitchen cooking and looking at her phone
When our brain is busy thinking about other things, it stops thinking about what it considers unimportant, leading to absentmindedness.

The harmless everyday episodes of absentmindedness that are common in daily life are often directly linked to stress and anxiety. As Ana Gómez, a public health psychologist, puts it, when we are under a lot of stress, basic functions like attention and concentration don’t work the same as they usually do, and suddenly we do not know very simple things like why we have gone to the kitchen or why we have thrown away the spoon and put the empty yogurt container in the sink.

To address the issue, one should ideally figure out the root of the problem so it can be remedied. So, what causes such a close link between stress disorder and absentmindedness? Ana Gomez explains that, when a person is experiencing anxiety and stress, the nervous system goes into alert mode and the brain focuses on possible threats to safety. That is where absentmindedness comes into play. When one perceives a situation as alarming, any information that is not relevant to coping is automatically discarded: “If I suddenly feel that my right side hurts terribly and I think I might have a serious illness, what difference does it make if I left the light on in the bathroom? It won’t matter if my life is in danger,” explains the expert.

In fact, according to psychologist and neuroscientist Mar Martínez, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) is most closely related to these memory failures. With GAD, a person is not only thinking about what is happening at a given moment but also everything that could happen, (sometimes involuntary) negative thoughts, and persistent worries that divert attention from the present. A person goes to multiple imaginary scenarios that create a significant mental burden, increasing their fatigue and reducing their capacity to pay attention to the little things.

A polyhedral (but solvable) reality

These disorders are often like geometric figures with many faces and sides. While some of their associated difficulties are quite noticeable, others remain hidden in a less obvious place. In addition to the obvious cause-and-effect issues that such absentmindedness entails, there is collateral damage that occurs as a result.

For example, this decrease in concentration takes a toll on the self-esteem of the people who are experiencing it: “If the person realizes that he or she is being absentminded more often and begins to criticize himself or herself and say ‘I’m losing my mind,’ ‘surely this is a sign of something more serious,’…he or she adds fuel to the fire, which only intensifies the emotional discomfort [and] adds more pressure and stress,” says Ana Gómez.

In addition, it is also important to understand that not all absentmindedness is the same and it isn’t equally evident in everyone. In fact, most people probably know someone who never knows where they put their keys or loses their cell phone every now and then. In these cases, sounding the alarm is much more complicated because, as Ana Gómez says, the difference is more noticeable in people who are not known to be distracted; those who are already scatterbrained may think that they are just a little worse than usual. However, regardless of the degree of intensity, reality eventually comes to light. According to Mar Martínez, patients with anxiety often realize that their memory is not what it used to be.

Ultimately, this problem can affect a person’s daily life, undermining their wellbeing and peace of mind. It is true that it is difficult to stop these cycles of worry, but it’s not impossible; there are ways to escape a flood of thoughts and become more focused.

To begin with, Mar Martínez says that generalized anxiety disorder (and its concomitant absentmindedness), does not appear out of the blue: “It starts with stress, which, in the long term, can turn into anxiety, which, in turn, can become a generalized [anxiety] disorder.” Thus, perhaps the priority should be developing the tools that allow us to know how we are really feeling so we can find solutions to these issues before they worsen. As we’re often reminded, one doesn’t need to wait for a situation to become untenable before going to therapy.

Ana Gómez advocates dealing with these scenarios calmly. She also offers a trick that consists of stating the important actions that one is carrying out. She says that activities are usually done in silence, but if someone is in doubt as to whether they have locked the door, for example, they can say out loud (to themselves) what they are doing as they are performing the activity.

Interestingly, in recent months, activities like knitting have come back into fashion. For many people, they may serve as a ritual that allows them to concentrate on a single thing for the first time all day. At the end of the day, sometimes it can be liberating to focus on the material and get out of all those alternative universes that, unlike Everything Everywhere All at Once, only happen in one’s head. Doing so allows us to quiet our minds and enables us to focus on simpler tasks.

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