A confused man
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People everywhere are finding they can’t remember the name of something they’re looking for, recall why they walked into a room, or start and finish a task in the same time frame they used to.

Why? It’s because many of us are experiencing pandemic brain fog and, despite common worries, it has nothing to do with aging, dementia, or physical or mental illness.

In the past year, we have faced an enormous amount of stress and anxiety in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency. This pandemic has affected most, if not all, areas of our lives, and led to changes in how we work, socialize and get our basic needs met.

We have been in uncharted waters, not knowing what this virus was going to do, how best to protect ourselves and our loved ones, how others would respond, and how long this would last.

Brain Fog and Other Effects of Pandemic Stress

Being in a prolonged state of fear and uncertainty causes anxiety and stress, both natural reactions to a crisis. While moderate, manageable amounts of stress can activate thinking and action — and actually be protective — prolonged high stress can negatively affect our functioning and overall health and well-being.

The persistent stress, fear and isolation paired with restrictions related to the pandemic can:

  • Turn into anxiety and depression, rates of which have risen since the start of the pandemic.
  • Lead to increased substance use and addiction, as people try to find ways to cope with such issues.
  • Bring about disruptions in daily routine, changes in diet and nutrition, and a more sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to physical health problems and sleep disturbances.
  • Cause people to spend more time in their homes than usual, which at first might have been enjoyable, but after a year, may feel boring, uninspiring and lonely.

Additionally, another unfortunate side effect of the pandemic is brain fog, where people may experience mental slowing or fatigue, trouble thinking and cognitive inefficiency. Paying attention, problem-solving, organizing and completing daily tasks may feel challenging, effortful and difficult. It may be hard to focus, initiate action and make good decisions.

This is because when stress and worry are high, the emotional center of our brain becomes activated, which interferes with our ability to think clearly and logically, and function effectively. For the past year, we have had to change the way we do many things, which can lead to feeling unsettled and confused.

What’s more, brain fog may become more noticeable and problematic as people transition back to a lifestyle that is more reminiscent of pre-pandemic times, while navigating aspects of daily living that are not the same. This can elicit mixed feelings of excitement, anxiety and being overwhelmed.

Busting Pandemic Brain Fog

Fortunately, there are things you can do to lift pandemic-related brain fog, support cognitive functioning and ease the transition back to pre-pandemic activities. These strategies can also have positive effects on mood.

Some brain-fog reducing strategies:

  • Create a daily routine that incorporates activities and aspects of life that are important and meaningful, and balance work and home responsibilities with leisure time. Use a to-do list, calendar or electronic scheduling system to help with task organization.
  • Avoid incorporating all activities at once. Instead, start with a simple schedule, focusing on one task at a time, and build on it each week. It should feel balanced, not overwhelming.
  • Incorporate activities each day that can support brain health and psychological well-being, such as exercise, time outdoors, safe socializing and maintaining a well-balanced diet.
  • Exercise the brain by trying new hobbies and engaging in mentally stimulating activities, such as doing puzzles, learning a new language, reading, and playing board and card games.
  • Engage in healthy, mood-elevating activities each day, such as listening to music, going for a walk, taking a soothing bath, calling a good friend or cuddling with a pet.
  • Practice mindfulness to help be in the present moment and away from negative thoughts about the past or future, calm emotions and bodily sensations, and slow down racing thoughts.
  • Learn ways to manage stress. This may include using relaxation techniques, such as breathing exercisesbody scanning, progressive muscle relaxation, and letting go of unnecessary worries.
  • Practice sleep hygiene strategies each day to promote healthful sleep, which has a restorative effect on overall health, including brain health. Sleep deprivation can slow down the brain’s ability to function.
  • Avoid drugs and alcohol, as they can have negative effects on brain health and interfere with important aspects of functioning, such as sleep, mood and thinking abilities.

Remember, your brain tends to work better when stress and anxiety levels are not high. Try to reduce unnecessary stressors in your life that you have control over, and practice stress management strategies for those you do not. If worrying thoughts are difficult to let go of, it can be helpful to accept that they may be there, while not giving them too much attention.

Returning to previous levels of functioning may take time. It is important to pace yourself and be kind to yourself in the process. You will get there.

However, if you continue to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental health issues, know that you are not alone and that there are professionals and programs that can help.

 Dr. Mary Beth Bryan, PsD, is a clinical psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.