You’ve been home for months, and now you can’t find your cell phone, or you forget what day of the week it is, or you can’t remember if you paid the rent. Even with two cups of coffee your brain still feels like it’s asleep. What is happening?

You might have Pandemic Brain Fog

While brain fog isn’t a medical condition, the term is pretty self-descriptive and most people know it when they feel it. It actually can be related to certain health conditions, such as low thyroid function, anemia, or fibromyalgia – but it can also be a stand-alone problem that impacts daily quality of life. Since the onset of the pandemic, many otherwise healthy individuals are reporting the experience of brain fog – so much so that the terms “pandemic brain” and “quarantine brain” are now popular social media topics.

The most common symptoms are forgetfulness, inability to think clearly, feelings of detachment and fatigue, poor task attention, and a general feeling of thoughts being clouded. Brain fog makes it harder to get simple tasks done, and it can even affect children, making it difficult to focus on schoolwork and other tasks.

So why does it happen?

Medical experts don’t have a perfect answer, but most fingers point to chronic stress. When the pandemic started, many people experienced acute stress. When you experience acute stress your body releases hormones – primarily cortisol and epinephrine (also called adrenaline) – that help you escape from a dangerous situation (like running away from a physical threat).

These hormones make you more reactive, stronger, and more focused in the short-term. They also increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure, and make you breathe harder – all things that are useful when you’re in physical danger. But if this reaction occurs when you don’t need it, then it is very distressing and is often the cause of what is commonly referred to as a panic attack. (Learn more here about the effects of stress on your body.)

As the pandemic has dragged on, episodes of acute stress have become chronic for many. In a state of chronic stress, the body keeps churning out those stress hormones, but the reaction changes. Although your heart isn’t racing all the time, the hormones start having other effects, including:

  1. Decreased immune function
  2. Increased appetite (leading to overeating and weight gain)
  3. Metabolic changes, including chronically elevated blood pressure and blood sugar
  4. Altered digestive function (like bloating and diarrhea)
  5. Poor quality sleep
  6. Depressed mood
  7. And…changes in brain function

How does this impact your brain?

In addition to adversely impacting mood and sleep, these stress hormones directly impact your ability to think.1 Research now links chronic stress to poor memory retrieval (ability to recall things you know), poor memory consolidation (ability to learn and remember new things), and poor working memory (your immediate ability to recall things like words and names). Over time, chronic exposure to stress hormones can actually be toxic to your brain, leading to oxidative stress and inflammation.2  

What can you do?

There is a lot of advice for reducing stress, but a simple place to start is to create and stick to a routine. Our bodies and brains find routine to be comforting, and routines help us self-regulate in important ways, including regulating our stress response and our sleep. As much as you can, set regularly scheduled times for the following:

  1. Waking up
  2. Meals
  3. Exercise/activity
  4. Bedtime

As much as possible, keep these times consistent day-to-day. While no two days are the same, the more you keep key activities on a schedule, the better you are likely to feel.

In addition, make a daily list of tasks you need to accomplish, and check them off as you go. You can add these to your normal routine.

If you work half days, then it might look like this:

  1. 6:30 a.m. wake-up
  2. Brush teeth, get dressed
  3. Walk and feed the dog
  4. 7:30 a.m. breakfast and supplements
  5. Check and respond to important emails
  6. 8:30 a.m. work-related projects
  7. 10 a.m. call work to check in
  8. Complete emails and answer work calls
  9. 12:30 p.m. lunch
  10. 1:00 p.m. walk the dog
  11. Check mail 
  12. Pay bills 
  13. 30 minutes of stretching and yoga 
  14. Household tasks
  15. 7 p.m. dinner
  16. 1 hour of TV or reading
  17. Shower or bath
  18. Make list for tomorrow
  19. Write in journal
  20. 10 p.m. bed

Your list can be as complex or simple as you need it to be. If you find you are drifting or distracted, refer back to your list to keep your brain engaged in the routine. Some researchers encourage contemplative practices like meditation or prayer as supportive activities for soothing a stressed brain.3 

Some individuals need the assistance of a health-care professional or counselor to get stress under control. If you have been trying on your own without much success, then it might be time to find someone who can help.

You can also take an at-home test that analyzes your stress hormones or consider adding nutrients that support brain function, such as B-vitamins, essential fatty acids, and supportive nootropic botanicals. Whatever you choose to manage your pandemic brain fog, the tools you find success with now are likely to benefit you in other ways in the future. 


References

  1. de Souza-Talarico J, Marin M, Sindi S, Lupien S. Effects of stress hormones on the brain and cognition: Evidence from normal to pathological aging. Dement Neuropsychol 2011;5(1):8-16. 
  2. McEwen B. Protective and damaging effects of stress mediators: central role of the brain. Dialogues Clin Neurosci 2006;8(4):367-381.
  3. Harmon R, Myers M. Prayer and meditation as medical therapies. Phys Med Rehabil Clin 1999;10(3):651-662.