Are You Suffering From Pandemic Brain?

Have you been noticing your mind wandering recently? Maybe you’re having a hard time remembering dates or placing faces? Or perhaps you no longer feel like you have the energy to focus on the things that once came easily to you.

You may be suffering from ‘pandemic brain’.

Your Brain and the Pandemic

Approaching the cautious return to pre-pandemic living in Ireland is something that has been long-awaited by most of us, but you may find your relief tinged with anxiety. After twenty months of on-and-off enforced social isolation, the idea of picking up where you left off can feel unexpectedly challenging.

This is because your brain has actually undergone measurable changes in the way it functions throughout the duration of the pandemic.

To begin with, the human brain is constantly reacting to its environment and making choices as to what information to keep and what information to discard based on how useful it is to you. Over the past year and a half it’s been prioritising the knowledge that will best help you navigate a global health emergency. On the flip side of this, actions and information no longer regarded as relevant have been quietly removed from your short-term memory to make space. That’s why grabbing a mask before leaving the house and reaching for your COVID certificate before you enter a bar have become muscle memories, while simple things like scheduling in-person work meetings or getting up early to go to the gym have become a struggle.

Instances of this kind of mental fatigue or ‘brain fog’, which complicates the activities and tasks you used to do without a second thought, have been studied by Harvard Medical School. In the team’s report on Pandemic Brain findings were made that 36% of test subjects felt mentally exhausted as a result of the pandemic, 27% felt physically exhausted, and 18% were suffering from a loss of concentration.

Down in the Dumps

It’s not just absent-mindedness that’s causing people to stumble as they gear up to return to their old lives. For some of us there’s a lingering sense of unease, even unhappiness, we can’t quite seem to shake.

Our constantly learning brains have been taking in as much new information as they can manage, but unfortunately they weren’t designed to be exposed to the wide variety of ever-updating news sources available to us in 2021. Between daily infection counts and ICU bed numbers, as well as 24-hour news cycles tracking the state of the virus worldwide, we’ve been saturated with facts and statistics that can only serve to stress us out. And this is very bad for our mental health.

In fact, the anxiety of the pandemic has caused our brains to go into overdrive in the production of a stress hormone called cortisol. In small doses, cortisol is supposed to put the body in a heightened state of alert to deal with threats. Under the consistent strain of the pandemic, however, high cortisol levels lead to anxiety, depression, and even memory loss. Dealing with the threat of virus, along with the associated strain it has put on many of our finances and job-security, can actually age our brains the equivalent of six years and make us worse at coping with low moods.

Combatting the Corona Blues

Luckily for us the human brain is quite elastic, and there are ways we can combat and even undo some of the more severe side effects of pandemic brain.

Variety is the spice of life. It’s been all too easy to let the days blur into one another, which leaves us feeling unsatisfied and muddled. By creating a plan for your week where you try to balance indoor and outdoor pursuits, and include both work and play, you’ll stimulate your brain and feel more cheerful and in control.

You should switch up your diet as much as your activities. Make sure to include as wide a selection of green vegetables as possible, alongside multi-grains, and foods high in omega-3, Vitamin D, and zinc.

Socialise! Although we’ve been wary of it during the pandemic, it’s important to try and get face to face with people as often as possible. Studies have definitively linked isolation and loneliness to memory loss and depression.
The most encouraging thing to remember is that 75% of mental aging is dictated by lifestyle, which means there’s a lot you can control. By acting now you can get your brain back into shape and get ready to enjoy a post-pandemic world to the fullest!

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Caoilfhinn Hegarty

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