Pandemic Brain Fog: Has The Pandemic Changed the Way Our Brain Functions?
We all have surely experienced the doorways effect at least once, where we enter a room and forget why we came there in the first place. Research has found it is an effect of overloaded working memory, or when our attention is stretched between multiple things. But have you noticed experiencing it more frequently in the last two years of the pandemic? Have the last two years dragged on but also passed you by in a blur at the same time? Has your attention span and concentration decreased, and a mental fog has settled? Well, you are not alone. The pandemic has given rise to what is being called the ‘pandemic brain’ which has led to brain fog. Brain fog is a common experience due to stress, lack of sleep, or hormonal changes. It causes confusion, forgetfulness, diminished concentration, fatigue, and distraction (think of an actual fog; you cannot see anything clearly). An optimum amount of stress increases our productivity and effective thinking. However, the prolonged and high levels of stress due to the pandemic have aggravated brain fog (like wildfire smoke added to winter fog). Two years into the pandemic, we can say that things are starting to go back to “normal”. Employees are returning to offices, people are socializing in person again, and a sense of normalcy is returning. But, it still feels like our brains haven’t caught up and we are living in a daze. “[Pandemic brain] is actually your brain adapting to your new situation the best way it can,” Stolow said. She also said that because there was a drastic shutdown from our prior dynamic interactions and movements, the feeling of fatigue and apathy arises.
Ask yourself: have you lost sense of time where you don’t know whether it is May or October, or you can't remember what day of the week it is? Colleagues you have sat beside for years, have you suddenly drawn a blank trying to remember their name? Do you now have to set reminders and alarms for menial house chores? You go to the grocery store for one item and come out buying everything else except the one thing you needed. Don’t worry, you are not developing early-onset dementia. ‘Pandemic brain’ hampers overall functioning and well-being, and also affects our cognition, resulting in difficulty remembering people’s names, forgetting tasks, decreased motivation to initiate activities, inefficiency, etc. Some people have even reported “forgetting what pre-pandemic life looked like”. After months of seeing faces in tiny rectangles on your screen, people are feeling “out of practice of interacting with people in person”. An article reports the results of a survey on everyday memory during the pandemic, which shows that 55% of individuals are facing pandemic amnesia, where they cannot place when an event occurred. When the events are distinctive our brain registers memories with a time-stamp. But since the days have merged into weeks and months during the pandemic, our brain processes it as a big chunk of time, and cannot remember individual events. The article suggests a lot of our memory is dependent on external cues to remember things (like seeing your boss remind you to work on the report you need to submit ASAP). It also suggested that the hippocampus, the autobiographical memory centre of our brain, is more active when we move around or are outside, but is inhibited when we are confined indoors, which would explain our poor memory in the lockdown.
Persistent stress can have effects on the brain’s physiology as well. Dr. Bryan said that the emotional centre of our brain becomes activated when we are stressed or worried, making it harder to think clearly and logically and function effectively. High levels of stress can shrink the size of our prefrontal cortex, responsible for higher-order functioning, and kill brain cells. Researchers have noticed changes in the volume of various brain parts, like the temporal lobe, frontal lobe, occipital lobe and subcortical regions, the amygdala, and the hippocampus, of people who have been isolated. Chronic stress can also become the cause of anxiety, depression, addictions and substance abuse. If you’ve found yourself sleeping too much, munching on snacks a lot, or being a couch potato, you are not metamorphosing into a panda; it could be due to the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic.
Tackling brain fog is possible.
- As we discovered above that our hippocampus is hungry for external cues, a change of scenery beyond our living room and bedroom might help. Going for a walk, or finding a different corner of the house to work from once in a while might be a welcome change.
- We often compare humans with computers, and our brain’s working memory can get overloaded, too, when trying to remember too many things at once, which is why we have to-do lists! Excessive lists and reminders seem like a problem caused because of brain fog, but these might also be a blessing in disguise. Alarms and to-do lists can help to keep a track of things without burdening our working memory.
- Pandemic has made our days bland and monotonous. With restrictions on going out, there is not much to do confined at home; so don’t hold back from shaking things up for yourself once in a while. Try a new hobby, learn a new skill, take a day off and relax; anything that gives our brain a needed wake-up call.
- At the same time, routines help maintain order and make us feel in control. Sleeping and waking up at the same time every day affect our mood positively throughout the day. Planning the day eliminates the anxiety of not knowing how our day will turn out.
- Recognize the symptoms of brain fog affecting you. Is it forgetfulness, fatigue, or lack of concentration? This will help you personalize the changes you can bring about to tackle it.
Since this brain fog is the result of living through a globally shared traumatic experience, it means our brain fog might be lifting along with these lockdown restrictions as well. Going back to our lives as we knew it as we near the endemic might help rewire our brains to become efficient again.