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'Pandemic Brain' Is Real: Here's Why You Might Be Struggling to Concentrate

We entered this year with newfound hope in life, excited to make plans, spend more time with family and friends, book holidays, say yes to events and host endless dinner parties. Life felt good and almost normal. 

But here we are – in Australia at least – stuck in a lockdown rut once more and confined to the four walls of our homes while we binge-watch our way through Netflix shows.

With the continuous uncertainty of the pandemic ever-present in our lives, it’s no wonder we’re all feeling on the brink of languishing, lockdown fatigue, high-functioning anxiety, burnout and stress. 

With all this going on, it's normal to start feeling like your thoughts are one massive blur. You’re frustrated, exhausted, maybe even unable to find joy in the hobbies that helped you get through lockdown in 2020. Instead, you feel absent-minded and often confused. If this explains your current state then you, my friend, might be experiencing a freshly coined phenomenon known as ‘pandemic brain’.  

Here, we go through what this phenomenon entails, why exactly you might be experiencing it and share a few psychologist-approved tips to help overcome it.

What is causing pandemic brain?

Given the isolation and instability we’ve had to endure over the past 12 months (and counting), this memory loss and forgetfulness is expected. It’s a product of a few reasons:

1. Your brain is overwhelmed

Lysn psychologist Nancy Sokarno says our brains are incredibly fatigued, which is causing us to have limited mental energy left for the basics. 

“The impact of the past year (and counting) thanks to the pandemic has almost left us with too much to think about, too much to consider and too much to worry about. Put simply, our brains need a break,” Sokarno tells Bed Threads Journal. 

Let me ask you some questions: When was the last time you actually took a day off from work? Do you remember the last day you logged off from your inbox and took a social media detox? Our minds have been wired 24/7 so it’s no surprise your brain doesn’t have the mental capacity to process any more information. 

2. Lack of new experiences

The brain is stimulated by the new and different, so the fact that most of us haven't had any really stimulating experiences in recent times explains this neurological sluggish feeling. 

“A lack of social contact and levels of loneliness has been shown to affect the brain negatively because the reduction of human contact means we’re missing out on conversation or repetition of stories (which can help with memory),” Sokarno explains.  

3. Time doesn’t exist

It’s also the never-ending blend of days with no change of scene, no social interactions and no commute. We’re unable to make memories and distinguish between the days because just like your brain is telling you, everything is thrown into one giant pile of mush. Currently, your brain is having difficulty distinguishing between experiences in lockdown, which is an important factor in pattern separation. 

An article on The Guardian explains this in detail: “This process, which takes place in the hippocampus, at the centre of the brain, allows individual memories to be successfully encoded, ensuring there are few overlapping features, so we can distinguish one memory from another and retrieve them efficiently.”

Unfortunately, this confused sensation might be with us for a while, according to Jon Simons, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “Our memories are going to be so difficult to differentiate. It’s highly likely that in a year or two, we’re still going to look back on some particular event from this last year and say ‘when on earth did that happen?’”, Simons said in an interview with The Guardian. 

What are the key symptoms of pandemic brain?

There are five main symptoms to look out for, and Sokarno notes each can happen at varying levels, depending on the person. These include:

  • Feeling forgetful, confused or absent-minded. 
  • Struggling to focus on tasks
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Slow or foggy thinking
  • Feeling as though your brain is tired, overwhelmed or fatigued

5 psychologist-tips for dealing with pandemic brain 

1. Accept your brain is fatigued

Have you tried to push through your brain fog and forced yourself to concentrate? If you answered yes, then not doing so the next time is the first step to overcoming your pandemic brain. “Don’t put pressure on yourself to remember things or rely too much on your brain – that might mean writing things down or reaching for the calculator when you’d normally work it out yourself,” Sokarno says.

2. Set yourself goals

Setting yourself short-term goals can help you feel as though you’re achieving things (even if it doesn’t feel that way sometimes). 

“Write down some small and achievable goals that you can obtain in the short term. This will help motivate you, stop some of the procrastination and give you a sense of satisfaction.”

3. Prioritise positive connections

We all know social media has many pros and cons but in this case, it’s probably best to avoid solely relying on social connections. 

“Social media can have negative effects on our mental wellbeing and those interactions aren’t always fulfilling,” Sokarno notes. “Where you can, meet up with family or loved ones in person, ensuring you are adhering to any rules (such as practicing social distancing and wearing a mask).”

Of course with restrictions in place, you can’t always meet up with people, so in this case, pick up the phone or use FaceTime as a way to keep those interactions more real.” It’s much better than messaging or trying to keep up with someone’s life via their Instagram Stories.

4. Set clear boundaries

Working from home is convenient but it also means the lines between work and life are blurred, which causes many of us to overwork. Sokarno stresses the importance of ensuring you’re setting clear boundaries about the hours you work and your downtime. 

“Don’t allow the fact that you’re working from home to mean you’re working around the clock or strange hours. This can lead to your subconscious brain always thinking about work and not giving you that mental rest you truly need.”  

5. Seek help when you need it

Know you’re not alone and you don’t need to work through this challenging period by yourself.

“If you feel comfortable, talk to friends and family about how you’re feeling – chances are they might be able to relate on many levels. Otherwise, seek the help of a professional. Places like Beyond Blue and Lifeline offer free over-the-phone counselling, and services like Lysn offer appointments with a psychologist from the comfort of your own home.” 

If you are concerned about your health, please contact a medical professional. If you or someone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 13 11 14, or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636. In emergencies, call 000.

Did you know 'languishing' is 2021's new burnout? Here's what it is and how to deal with it.

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