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.
Kids say the darndest things. Follow any of the famously funny parent bloggers on social media and you'll learn some of their cute toddlers call donuts "cake bagels," name escalators "robot stairs" and refer to a head of lettuce as a "salad ball."
However, these days, it's not just toddlers who are at a loss for the correct names of items they encounter. Adults 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," says Dr. Mary Beth Bryan, a clinical psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. "This pandemic has affected most, if not all, areas of people's 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
According to Dr. Bryan, 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.
Dr. Bryan says that 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, Dr. Bryan reports 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.
"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," she says. "For the past year, we have had to change the way we do many things, which can lead to feeling unsettled, overwhelmed 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.
The difference between brain fog and dementia
While it can be difficult to distinguish pandemic-related brain fog from early signs of dementia, Dr. Bryan notes that there are some differences. With pandemic-related brain fog, cognitive functioning should return to pre-pandemic levels once your prior activities are reinstated and anxiety and depression have lifted.
"In cases of early memory loss and dementia, there will not be a trajectory of cognitive improvement and recovery, but rather continued decline," Dr. Bryan says. "Also, problems with short-term memory, word finding and higher-level thinking may be especially pronounced and persistent, despite expected improvements in alertness, attention and mood as the pandemic lightens."
Busting pandemic brain fog
Fortunately, Dr. Bryan says there are things people 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 mental 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 exercises, body 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.
"Brains tend to work better when stress and anxiety levels are not high," Dr. Bryan says. "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."
If you continue to struggle with depression, anxiety, substance abuse or other mental health issues, Dr. Bryan says that it is important to remember that you are not alone and that there are professionals and programs that can help you.
"Remember that returning to previous levels of functioning may take time," she says. "Pace yourself and be kind to yourself in the process. You will get there."
Learn more about mental health programs at Sharp HealthCare. If you or a loved one are experiencing a serious mental health crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255, or call 911 if you or another may be at risk for self-harm or suicide.