Can you direct attention to and from different parts of your body?


Attention is like a spotlight that helps us focus on things in our experience.

It can be narrow and sharp, like when you really concentrate, or wide and relaxed, like when you’re out walking somewhere beautiful, taking in all the sights and sounds.

People with functional somatic symptoms sometimes struggle with attention. They often find it hard to shift their focus and might focus too much on certain things.

These attention problems can happen for various reasons, like anxiety, stress, poor sleep, or neurodevelopmental differences like ADHD. Medication, recreational drugs, and diet can also affect attention.

Here are 3 important things to know about attention and how it affects functional symptoms:

  1. Fixed attention makes symptoms stronger: When we focus on a symptom, this can make it appear louder and more important. This is called somatosensory amplification.
  2. Attention can mess with normal functions: The way you direct attention changes how your body does things. For example, if you focus too hard on moving, you might do it in a jerky and difficult way.
  3. Attention embeds symptoms: Through neuroplasticity, what we pay attention to grows stronger over time. Continuing to pay a lot of attention to a symptom (perhaps because of health anxiety), is one way symptoms become chronic.

Learning to relax and shift your focus away from symptoms is a key skill in rehabilitation. You can do this by finding other things you enjoy, like playing games, listening to music, talking to friends, or doing hobbies.

Once you’ve learned to take your mind off symptoms, you can practice shifting your attention to and from body sensations. This skillset (flexible attention with bodily awareness) can help you manage symptoms in different situations and is the foundation for gradually ‘unlearning’ symptoms.

Therapist Tip Sticker

Tips for working with attention:

  • Taking breaks from technology and doing calming activities like reading can help build your attention span.
  • Connecting with your real-life surroundings, like spending time with pets, going to art galleries, birdwatching or socializing in person, can also help your attention.
  • Breathing exercises or mindful movement can help you develop the skills to pay attention to the body in a flexible way.