Minnesota experts share tips to ease pandemic 'brain fog'

Melinda Lavine, Duluth News Tribune, Minn.
·4 min read

Apr. 2—Are you forgetting words mid-sentence, straining to make small decisions or focus on your work?

You may be experiencing pandemic-induced brain fog.

"It can feel like you're overloaded or like your brain is full; it's harder to grasp a thought," said Rebecca Perrett, licensed independent clinical social worker at Essentia Health.

The isolation, multitasking, loss of healthy routines, added interruptions and the stress of the past year can affect your ability to think, plan, complete tasks or control impulses.

"During a pandemic, it's a pretty normative response," she said, and in some ways, the brain is doing its job.

The limbic system — the command center for feelings, reactions and our fight-or-flight response — interprets highly stressful situations as "an internal fire alarm."

COVID-19 posed a deadly threat, and we shifted into survival mode.

Add to that a need to stay healthy, manage work changes, prolonged boredom and a loss of emotional, social and psychological resources and the brain shifts into the basics — breathing and eating — vs. executive functioning — interpreting communication and finding balance.

Asked how Perrett is seeing brain fog in her patients, she paused.

"Maybe, I'm having a little pandemic brain fog here," she said, before continuing:

People experience it more specifically in forgetting the details, meetings or regularly scheduled appointments, or blanking on routine errands or difficulty processing new information.

For some, basic tasks are hard or recalling steps is difficult.

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"Brain fog is not well-understood," said Richard Lee, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, who is addressing this in ongoing research.

In April 2020, Lee began to study the pandemic's impact on university faculty, staff and students. They surveyed 565 people on performance and productivity; COVID fatigue; the effects on mental health, sleep, lifestyle, relationships; and ethnic minority mental health.

They have collected four waves of data so far, the most recent in February. In their latest survey, they found 10-20% reported regular forgetfulness, difficulty communicating and lack of mental clarity.

But, Lee noted there is no pre-pandemic baseline with which to compare. Poor sleep, increased alcohol consumption and other pre-existing factors could affect the results.

The causes of brain fog can vary, and it's challenging to pinpoint these symptoms on living through a pandemic alone, he added.

One consistency: Brain fog is caused by inflammation from stress or medical conditions such as lupus or chemotherapy.

"We're not at a place where we can make a quick leap at causation," he said.

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Your ability to focus may improve as you return to the office or add safe face-to-face gatherings. In the meantime, here are ways to help.

Lee suggested the same steps he would to counteract general stress: good sleep and nutrition, exercise, increased emotional and social support systems.

"The pandemic has made people feel very insecure and uncertain about the future," he said. "Find ways that you can take control of your life rather than having so much uncertainty."

Try these strategies:

Routine and good sleep hygiene play an important role in attention, memory and concentration. So, even if it's a couple small, daily actions, such as journaling, showering or walking the dog, build a routine.

Focus on small goals and tasks rather than looking too far into the future or dwelling too far into the past.

Incorporate play time with the kids, painting, crafting, reading, hiking — whatever restores you.

Prioritize time away from work and screens; if you're able, plan for paid time off or mental health days when you need them.

Try to challenge or stretch your brain by engaging in a hobby, learning a new skill or doing puzzles.

Safely socialize with family and friends (outside is best).

Listen to music or podcasts. This can stimulate the brain and hold attention while creating a sense of socialization.

Jumpstart executive functioning by labeling your emotions and dive into mindfulness tools to boost resilience. The latter activates the prefrontal cortex, which will help you regain some control over stress in the moment.

Allow yourself kindness and patience.

"This is a hard year. I believe that we're all trying to do the best that we can," Perrett said.

— — —

There have been shifts in another direction this past year.

In his most recent survey, Lee said some people reported feeling more calm, and that relationships with family and friends had improved.

"For some people, the pandemic helped give them more perspective or helped remove some of the stress they were having in their lives by slowing down," he said, adding, "Some groups obviously have more privilege and position to be able to not be so financially impacted, for example."

People are able to find purpose and meaning that co-occurs with mental health challenges. You could be exhausted and emotionally down yet also be appreciative and thankful for your relationships.

It's not as if one can only exist without the other, Lee said.

"Going through something like this is hard," Perrett said, "and it develops a lot of resiliency skills and strength that we can use in the future."