Do you ever feel like you’ve had more trouble concentrating lately? Or that it’s harder to make decisions than it used to be? Research shows that we’re still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an increasingly common phenomenon called “pandemic brain.”
What Is “Pandemic Brain”?
The pandemic impacted all of us. We had to shift the way we lived our lives and for many of us, those alterations – changes at work and school, less in-person socialization, etc. – are still very much present. The COVID pandemic changed the way we work, live and socialize. But there’s also another way that the pandemic is still affecting us today.
If you’ve found yourself “struggling to concentrate on a task, or having difficulty remembering a specific word or where you left your keys since the pandemic,” you might be experiencing “pandemic brain”- and you’re not the only one.
Pandemic brain is a type of “brain fog” triggered by the long-term stress and anxiety experienced during the pandemic. It can make you feel tired, unmotivated, confused or forgetful.
Research suggests that even for people who never caught COVID, “societal and lifestyle disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic may have triggered brain inflammation” that can affect mental health.
That means that all those daily stressors, that uncertainty and grief, are still impacting our brains now.
Jeni Stolow, a social and behavioral scientist and assistant professor of instruction at the College of Public Health at Temple University says:
“It’s this cognitive impairment that the whole world has been going through because it’s triggered by things like stress . . . “Some of us had major stressful events happen, but we also have these micro-stressors happening continuously.”
What To Do About Pandemic Brain
Luckily, things aren’t hopeless. You can do something about pandemic brain. Our brains are strong and adaptable, thanks to something called neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to experience. That means you can actually train your brain to improve itself. For example, so that you concentrate better or feel happier (this is the concept behind cognitive behavioral therapy, a super effective kind of talk therapy).
Ready to kick pandemic brain’s butt and take back control? Here are a few ways you can fight pandemic-induced brain fog.
Get More Exercise
Exercise can improve memory and reduce anxiety and depression. Regular physical activity can also reduce your risk of cognitive decline as you age, including dementia. In fact, a study published in “Preventative Medicine” journal found that cognitive decline is almost twice as common among adults who are inactive compared to those who are active.
As Stolow says, “. . . exercise is your brain’s best friend, so the more exercise you do the more your brain is going to respond.”
Research suggests that pandemic brain is caused by neuroinflammation and we know that certain foods, nutrients and eating habits can have both positive and negative impacts on inflammation in the body, including neuroinflammation.
We also know that COVID-19 can cause structural damage in the brain. So if you were infected with COVID at some point, your brain could still be impacted by that.😬The good news is that research shows that certain nutrients and dietary patterns might promote neurogenesis – the rebuilding of that damage.
To fight pandemic brain, change your diet by:
- Adopting anti-inflammatory eating habits – that is, eat less processed foods and more nutrient-dense foods, including colorful fruits and vegetables (they’re chock-full of vitamins and antioxidants.
- Minimize your intake of refined carbs, added sugar and saturated fat – These all will make inflammation worse. 😖
- Eat probiotic-rich foods – 70% to 80% of the immune system is housed in the gut, and there’s a brain-gut relationship – they impact one another.
- Choose the right kind of fats – fat comprises over 50% of brain matter, so consuming certain dietary fats plays a role in brain health. Just be sure to opt for the healthy kinds – like olive oil or avocados over those potato chips you love so much (sorry!)
Cut Back on Alcohol
Some researchers from University of Oxford found that the “amount of shrinkage in the hippocampus – the brain area associated with memory and reasoning – increases the more you drink alcohol. They studied a group of adults over 30 years and found that those who had four or more drinks a day had almost six times the risk of hippocampal shrinkage as did nondrinkers.” 😬
Get More – And Better – Sleep
Sleep gives you time to rest and repair your brain and body. Each phase of the sleep cycle “restores and rejuvenates the brain for optimal function.” When you don’t get enough sleep, there’s no time to perform that function, so “toxins can build up, and the effects will become apparent in cognitive abilities, behavior, and judgment.”
If the pandemic changed the way you socialized, you’re not the only one. Maybe you got used to being a homebody or realized the convenience of doing everything over video chat. You do you – but keep in mind, there’s a proven link between social isolation and cognitive decline. Do what you can to get the socialization you need to keep your brain healthy.
Keep Your Mind Active
Keeping your mind active is crucial when it comes to brain health, especially as you get older. Challenge your brain regularly with mental exercise like puzzles, reading, writing or even video games.
Fight “Pandemic Brain” With Self-Care
Essentially, it all boils down to self-care. Taking care of yourself physically, mentally and emotionally will ensure you have the resources you need to get over pandemic brain and have good brain health going forward.
Is pandemic brain getting you down? Feeling stressed or burned out?
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Not interested? Why not buy one for a friend for the holidays? (But I still strongly recommend treating yourself – you deserve it. 😉