The psychology of how stress affects focus

A student guide on how to approach the next academic year in the face of COVID-19

Writer: Maria Stoica
Editor: Marta Caldeira
Artist: Elena Kayayan


In the span of three months, a global pandemic has upended our daily lives. To ‘power through’ is the last action most of us feel compelled to; however, adjusting to our current reality is the only choice left. That reality is uncertain: UCL has announced all lectures will be conducted online in the autumn, but there has been little clarification since.  

My reaction to the initial stress of COVID-19 very much felt like the five stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, bargaining, and finally, acceptance. Still, how we respond to stress and are able to regain momentum is dependent on a variety of factors.

Understanding the manner in which stress affects our prefrontal cortex (PFC) is paramount to seeing why our focus wanes in response. The PFC is an area of higher-order cognitive function which regulates behaviour, emotion, and decision-making. These three components are crucial to achieving a focused state of mind. However, as research demonstrates, even “mild uncontrollable stress” has damaging effects on prefrontal function in animals and humans. With all of first term most likely being online, adapting to such an environment constitutes a stress factor for students.

Research indicates that even a perceived loss of control over a stressor plays a significant role. For example, in a study that asked college males to perform cognitive tasks with and without uncontrollable noise, “feelings of helplessness” were noted when participants had no control over the sound. Given that students are likely to experience a loss of control in some areas, there is something to be said for basking in what we can control. For instance, being intentional about where you study and making your environment conducive to learning can mitigate the feelings of helplessness described in the study.

The relation between loss of control and stress is supported from a psychological standpoint: one’s ability to tolerate ambiguity, among other factors, determines personal vulnerability to stress. This ambiguity is two-fold as it speaks to our lack of individual control and COVID-19’s invisibility. For instance, in a desperate attempt to make sense of this unknown, I’ve resorted to reading the numerous COVID-19 articles that populate my feed. After some time, they begin to blend into a cacophony of endless noise ‒ not unlike what the college males had to listen to. 

In a New Statesman article, Dr. Amy Arnsten outlines three reasons as to why the stress associated with COVID-19 impairs our PFC function. The first two factors have been sketched out: the lack of individual control and COVID-19’s invisibility. The third factor—a change in living patterns to protect ourselves—is perhaps the most physically demanding. September is slowly creeping up on us, which will provoke a new wave of questions related to online learning, access to resources, and living situations. The ‘new normal’ at UCL will undoubtedly represent a challenge, but there are ways to rein in the stress to stay focused.    

As previously stated, organise your environment in a suitable manner for you. While minimising distractions may be trite advice, it’s guaranteed to work. Apps such as Forest encourage you to stay off your phone and enable you to plant real trees once you have accumulated enough coins. Additionally, if you live in a noisy household, setting clear boundaries with your family members can be effective in gaining some quiet for a few hours. Another aspect of your environment is your physical space. If you’re able to, carve out a small, dedicated area for yourself that you can associate with work.

Second, hold yourself accountable in some way. What this means varies for each person, but it can be as simple as a to-do list to check off at the end of the day, or something more fixed like a schedule sectioned into hour blocks. Online learning, especially lectures that can be accessed at any time, does erase some of the rigidity provided by class timetables. So, writing down important assignments and tasks can be helpful in adding structure. 

Lastly, it’s important to be realistic with yourself. Starting first term online is not what many of us envisioned, hence adjusting will take some time. For instance, your screen time will likely resemble an exponential graph in the beginning. There is a risk of over-committing yourself and spiralling into a cycle of discouragement. Instead, prioritise what you need to get done, which is where a to-do list can come in handy.

Ultimately, the tools outlined above are only meant to serve as a guide for some of the strategies you can adopt this coming academic year. UCL’s current ambivalent stance is indeed nerve-wracking but becoming comfortable with the ambiguity is an asset in reducing personal vulnerability to stress.

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