Are the days of ordering an XXL latte or popping a prescription pill to boost focus coming to an end?
Workplace burnout is now the “occupational phenomenon” circulating the collective health radar. And, as such, stressed Americans struggling with work-life balance are on a quest for healthier alternatives to solutions such as Adderall or caffeine. Last year, the former inspired Netflix’s documentary Take Your Pills, which highlighted the extreme dependence on amphetamines that our national obsession with 24/7 productivity has created. And this year, across the pond, royal health routines made waves when Prince William dropped caffeine at Meghan Markle’s encouragement.
I was a New York City transplant when I requested my first Adderall prescription—but I still flew home for an appointment with my childhood doctor to take his temperature on the idea. “You’ve always had ADD,” he said gently, underlining that we’d never discussed treatment, especially with something as powerful as an amphetamine. Still, I pushed for the tiny blue pills, and they fired up my productivity just as I’d hoped. But after some time I realized: To maintain that same rush of potential over time, it would require more, and more, and more. Five milligrams turned into ten, which then turned into twenty on a time-release basis. Eventually, my body started to change (a byproduct of never feeling like eating), and I wondered if my hyper-interested conversations surrounding any and every topic were becoming more of a distraction than a social asset.
To circumvent complete reliance, I decided to stop refilling my prescription when I accepted a job at Vogue. But in lieu of Adderall, I started drinking coffee. It wasn’t exactly the best part of waking up, but it was always around, and I needed some kind of energy fix for 8 a.m. mornings and late-night writing sessions. Each day, I’d make my way to the Condé Nast cafeteria and fill up a Big Gulp–sized cup of iced hazelnut liquid, leaving the cashier slightly wide-eyed at my choice beverage. To avoid hopscotching from stimulant to stimulant, I decided to start weaning myself off my reliance again, foregoing coffee in favor of some more experimental wellness offerings that I hoped would be milder focus aids. From smart stickers to adaptogenic tonics, here’s what’s helped me:
Giving Up Stimulants
When interviewing nutritionists, it’s often difficult to get a straight answer as to whether caffeine is really good or bad for us. Some think it can help boost mood. Others note that it can burn out adrenals and spike cortisol levels. “Caffeine can induce adrenal fatigue and put your body in fight-or-flight mode,” explains nutritionist Maya Feller, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. “When we put our body in excessive adrenal stress, our body shifts from processing mode to fight-sleep mode and cortisol levels increase.” As an alternative, I tested herbal brain tonics, organic mushroom powders, and even frequency stickers. Some effects were negligible, but a few options created real results. And it’s a new direction that many doctors are now considering. “Struggle with focus has a lot to do with distractions such as social media, requirements and responsibility at work, and with family,” says Dr. Richard Firshein, a leading expert in integrative and precision-based medicine. Firshein begins by looking for underlying causes of fatigue or the ability to focus, such as hormone imbalance or conditions such as hypothyroidism, hypoglycemia, chronic fatigue syndrome, or Lyme disease. Once they’ve been ruled out, he’ll consider prescribing supplements.” New York City psychologist and licensed mental health counselor Montana Queler, Ph.D., L.M.H.C. wonders if what we call “focus” or “concentration” is more of an addiction to the adrenaline rush that caffeine and prescriptions provide. “Are we actually running on empty, filling ourselves with ersatz fuel? When productivity is propped up as a foremost value, will we ever have enough energy, or will the bar for output rise perpetually beyond reach?” Queler asks of our cultural norm and interest in alternative therapies. “If some of the tools coming to market now are meant to help bring us back into balance, that feels, to me, like a much more sustainable type of energy to be harnessing.”
Sipping Adaptogenic Tonics
After taking adaptogenic powders for years, I was intrigued by the “clinical levels” of herbs in Elements by Lokai, which released an adaptogenic tonic called Focus last month. A few droppers into a glass of water later, I noticed an upgrade in the speed at which I was checking off my to-do list. Pitches for stories were flowing all day, yet at night, I was able to fall right to sleep without the usual jittery extended caffeine release. Its main ingredients, blueberry and schisandra, are well documented, after all. “Blueberry has compounds called anthocyanins, which are associated with having an effect on memory,” Feinstein explains. “Studies show blueberries act through specific signaling pathways in the hippocampus that control learning and memory.” And for schisandra, which belongs to a specific group of Chinese herbs, Feinstein notes similar benefits. “It has been traditionally believed to be a supplement that withstands stress and improves memory and cognition,” he says. Queler agrees that it would make sense that the specific blend could indeed “be useful given that it addresses rebalancing cortisol, an imbalance often exacerbated by the stress of pushing ourselves way too hard.”
Applying Smart Stickers
Body Vibes, a “smart sticker” brand that harnesses bio-energy synthesis technology (B.E.S.T.) developed by homeopathic doctors and engineers using frequencies to heal the body, sounds as woo woo as wellness gets. Specific frequencies are programmed into a Mylar layer, which can reportedly help the body rebalance and function more optimally. When I peeled off the protective paper on their Focus sticker and applied it just over my heart as directed, it only took a few hours to feel a familiar “hot-faced” sensation that I hadn’t experienced since my prescription. The stickers remain active (and waterproof!) for 72 hours, and in that window, I felt more productive and tuned into daily tasks. “Focus comes from good blood flow,” says acupuncturist and traditional Chinese medicine expert Mona Dan. “The ionic magnetic stimulus on the Body Vibes Focus sticker can affect the blood flow and the body’s response to its frequencies.” Of course, there’s a chance it’s all in my head—but is that really so bad? “While I imagine that some part of its effectiveness is placebo (placebos aren’t anything to scoff at, they are powerful tools, truly!), it also made me think about Reiki, which I’ve tried and found success with,” says Queler of smart stickers’ relation to the Japanese method of channeling energy, of which she was initially skeptical. “I quickly discovered that it seems to rely on some of the same underlying wisdom as acupuncture—that we have an energy system in our bodies and that balancing that energy system leads to overall wellness—it just uses a different technique to accomplish this.” For creatives, there’s something to it. R+Co just launched their collab with Body Vibes, meant to increase artistic expression and enhance focus for hairstylists, who perpetually rely on outside-of-the-box strategizing.
Practicing Mindful Meditation
For many experts, meditation is the inevitable holistic route to a steadier attention span. “Generally, when patients describe having problems with focus, one of the best ways to get started is with guided meditation or a meditation app,” says Firshein, calling out Buddhify as a vetted a starter option. “Meditation has been shown to reduce the effects of cortisol and adrenalin, which are neurotoxic. Allowing your brain to pause and relax is like setting the reset button, giving your brain a chance to reconnect and prioritize thoughts so you’re able to focus on issues and problems that have a higher level of priority than others.” Queler seconds the practice from personal experience. “As someone who has dabbled in meditation, I have had glimpses of a different kind of focus that feels far less manic or busy,” she shares. “Unlike the rush that stimulants provide, meditation offers a calm kind of focus; it’s a quieting of the mind.” And in addition to guided apps, it’s being reimagined into modern, even Spotify-accessible forms. Right now, I’m listening to Kyoto Window, an album of ambient music by Anders Rhedin of the band Dinner. This latest solo release via Captured Tracks is meant to translate the practice of meditation into sound. “I need relaxation and mental clarity as much as anyone,” he notes in his Instagram post announcing the drop. As the synthy sounds move through my headphones, I imagine rippling waves, rolling hills, and looking up at sunbeams streaming through trees. But really, I’m here. In front of a screen. And my work for the day is complete.
Originally Appeared on Vogue