Feeling forgetful and exhausted? Why lockdown causes brain fog

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If you feel more sluggish and in need of caffeine during lockdown, you’re not alone

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

After going through months of lockdown, one might expect to have settled in and adjusted to this new normal. There was probably a to-do list you dreamed of tackling, a stack of books to read, and work projects to finally get around to completing.

But for many of us, the books lay untouched, and the to-do list got longer instead. The ability to focus just hasn’t been there. Instead of feeling well-rested and energetic from all this downtime at home, most of us are complaining of feeling lethargic, unmotivated and irritable.

Why aren’t we able to reap any benefits from all this enforced downtime? Because no matter how much you think otherwise, we are all stressed and worried about the future, constantly. And while you may tell yourself to be positive and hopeful, and that things will return to normal soon, that isn’t enough to undo that constant state of stress.

The effects of stress

Remember, this response is normal, as neuroscientist Dean Burnett points out. “If you are worried and stressed, that is the correct response to all this mess. If there is one thing that the brain is good at, obscenely good at, it is finding things to worry about.”

Your brain will scan for anything that could potentially pose a threat, and respond by firing up the threat response system. The brain is sensitive to the slightest risk. And with an unprecedented global pandemic, a virus with no known vaccine, risk is everywhere.

So even if we are keeping busy, actively avoiding the news, and trying to distract ourselves from what is going on, our brains sense that there is something to be wary of. There are too many constant reminders, from washing our hands more frequently, all the things we are doing differently now that we are at home all the time, and the inevitable discussion of lockdown in every conversation we have.

So what does this constant stress have to do with feeling forgetful? The constant presence of stress in our bodies takes its toll. This resulting wear and tear is called allostatic load. The brain detects we are stressed, and responds by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, readying us for fight or flight. This will physically affect your body – raising your blood pressure, increasing your heart rate, and over time, causing headaches, fatigue, aches and pains and gastrointestinal systems. It can even cause chest tightness, a symptom of coronavirus, just to make us extra worried.

Photo by Polina Zimmerman from Pexels

But allostatic load will also affect your emotions and mood. You may feel anxious, irritable, and suspicious. And your concentration levels will drop, your thinking will slow, become more negative, and you will become forgetful. The days go by and you have achieved nothing, the work day seems impossibly long and unproductive, and the TV cannot hold your attention.

We have known for some time that stress has a serious effect on the body, and yet the severity and all-encompassing nature of the effects probably still comes as a surprise. The narrative we are telling ourselves – that we’re merely working from home for now, that we will get back to normal soon, that this is fine really, just a bit boring – isn’t helping. It is at odds with what is happening in our bodies, and in the world around us.

So how do we get our concentration, motivation and energy back? The answer is the same now during lockdown as it was before. Rest and relaxation are essential to undoing all the harmful effects of stress on the body. Selfcare, healthy routines and time for ourselves is essential right now.

You may wonder how a simple life at home, with our families, with less pressure of commuting and social engagements, has left us feeling more stressed. Aside from the societal, economic and cultural harm of coronavirus stressing us out, it is the fact that it is omnipresent. There is no rest from lockdown life, from when we wake until we eventually fall asleep. Whereas in our usual day-to-day, the things that stress us out like commutes, meetings and difficult moments with toddlers will come to an end. But in a global pandemic with no vaccine, there is no true end in sight. Our usual days have an ebb and flow, but lockdown life is notably the same, day in, day out. We have too much time to process thoughts, to ruminate, to dwell.

It is frustrating, and even hard to believe that it is taking this toll on us, when we have all weathered challenges before, or lived stressful daily lives before lockdown. But this feels relentless. There is no reprieve, so we get no opportunity to recover. We know all too well that our usual outlets are out of reach; no regular yoga class, wander around the shops or long drive to quiet our minds. And so, though it may seem counterintuitive, in order to regain focus and energy during lockdown, we must allow ourselves to thoroughly switch off.

How to combat stress in lockdown

  • The body, when in survival mode, seeks out sugar. Instead of giving in to the urge to bake, eat treats and overindulge in alcohol, fill up on healthy, nutritious food.
  • With out motivation, exercise routuines can fall to the wayside. But exercise erases the effects of stress from the body naturally. Make it a priority.
  • The brain enjoys a sense of control, which lockdown has taken away from us. Start a project, assign yourself daily tasks, or do something to exercise that sense of autonomy the brain desires.
  • Don’t watch the news first thing in the morning or last at night. There is a reason that productive, successful people are obsessed with calming morning and evening routines.

Take a look inside the latest issue of Irish Country Magazine, is in shops and available for digital download now.