The other day, my friend Kristina told me that one evening she unintentionally locked her husband in a downstairs part of their house. She had known he was down there, but while distractedly locking the door for the night, forgot completely. She didn’t realize what she’d done until she saw a text from her husband the next morning asking her to please let him out.
“I couldn’t believe I did that to him,” she says. “I was stunned and alarmed that I had no awareness, in the moment or afterward, of what I had done.”
Kristina’s is one of many stories I’ve recently heard from people suggesting they’re having more trouble staying focused, making decisions, or remembering things. I’ve experienced this myself—misplacing keys, forgetting appointments, and leaving lights on in vacated rooms. When it comes to work, I’m less focused and have trouble getting things done.
Perhaps it’s because I spend so much time online, reading news, shopping, working, even socializing via Zoom. When you’re constantly staring at a screen—especially if you’re following events unfolding in Ukraine—you’re bound to suffer stress and attention fatigue from information overload.
The emotional costs of the pandemic aren’t helping, either. It’s clear that COVID-19 conditions have affected people’s stress levels, sleep, and mental health—especially those who don’t deal well with uncertainty. This, in turn, has affected our cognitive well-being, leading to poorer performance on tasks that require attention, memory, or decision making.
Though the worst period of the pandemic may have passed—cases and deaths are falling, and there’s no imminent danger of another shelter-in-place order—many of us are still paying that cost in the form of “brain fog.” Researchers have noted that living through the pandemic is negatively influencing people’s cognition—their focus, attention, ability to plan, and more. Though the elderly may be particularly vulnerable, many of us could be suffering some degree of brain fog in the wake of recent events. Here are some steps you can take to clear the fog away.
1. Become more intentional about consuming news
Whether we’re trying and failing to make plans, keeping up with the ever-changing recommendations around COVID, or doomscrolling about climate change or the war in Ukraine, it’s hard to avoid anxiety or catastrophizing about the future. That’s going to impact our brains.
Unfortunately, newspapers, TV news programs, and many social media sites make their money by grabbing your attention—and nothing grabs attention better than negative news. But repeated exposure to crises wreaks havoc with our well-being and can lead to bad decision making.
If we want to reduce stress and keep sharp, there are ways to tone down our media consumption and be more intentional about how we consume our news. For example, once you’ve read an update on what’s happening abroad in Ukraine, you might skip watching 24-hour cable news where the same stories are repeated ad nauseam. You might limit your use of social media, as doing so can help you feel less lonely, depressed, and anxious.
In fact, taking breaks from technology, in general, could help you focus better at work and elsewhere.
2. Exercise regularly—outside, if you can
One of the best tools for stress-busting or fighting depression is exercise. But it’s also important for thinking more clearly.
When we exercise, we encourage blood flow through our bodies, including our brains, which need oxygenation to perform at their best. Sitting for long periods of time without taking breaks to move has been tied to brain changes associated with dementia, as well as poor cognitive functioning. Getting exercise, on the other hand, is tied to better cognition—and even moderate exercise can help us think more clearly and perform better on tasks requiring focus.
If you have a park or open space nearby, try spending some time moving while in green spaces (especially among trees). Research confirms that being out in more natural settings is helpful for our well-being and has positive effects on our cognition above and beyond those coming from exercise alone.
3. Stay connected to others
The lack of socializing during COVID lockdowns may have been particularly hard on people’s cognition.
For example, in one study, researchers in Scotland tested the cognitive functioning in 342 adults ages 18–72, starting when lockdown restrictions were in place but easing over time. The participants performed online tasks that measured their attention, memory, decision-making, time-estimation, and learning skills; the researchers also measured how isolated they were. When comparing the test results to the level of isolation they were experiencing, the researchers found that cognition improved as people became less isolated and had opportunities to socialize more.
Though some of this could have been due to other factors, like lack of exercise, a recent review of many studies (pre-pandemic) confirms that socializing is important for keeping yourself cognitively fit. It also found that loneliness increases people’s vulnerability to cognitive decline, especially among the elderly. So, it’s a good idea to try to find ways to be with others—safely, of course—to keep your brain functioning well.
4. Try new challenges
While many of us have been at our wit’s end during the past few years, we can do something for our brains that’s good for cognition at any time: learn new things.
During the pandemic, I began learning to speak Greek in anticipation of future travel there. It was certainly a cognitive challenge—one that was fun and, hopefully, will help stave off dementia (which happens to run in my family). You probably know people who’ve used lockdown restrictions as an opportunity to learn to play a new instrument, write poems or stories, study their history, or build furniture.
Whether there’s a pandemic on or not, using your brain in new, challenging ways is good for neural health, and will help your brain stay healthy. Of course, you should not take on more to do if you are already struggling to keep up with the basics. But noticing opportunities to incorporate new things into your everyday routines—even taking a new route on your walk or trying out a new recipe—could give your brain a fun workout without adding more to your to-do list.
5. Be kind to yourself
If you are already trying things to avoid brain fog and still seem to have it, don’t beat yourself up about that. We are living through extraordinary times, and so we need to practice a little self-compassion. That can mean anything from simply forgiving yourself for your lapses (like losing your keys for the nth time) to actively advocating for fewer work assignments (so you can build in a little breathing room for inefficiency).
If you find yourself suffering extreme anxiety or depression, you may want to seek professional help—because seeking treatment is a key way to be kind to yourself. Talking to a trusted therapist can help you figure out how to manage chronic emotional issues better so you can suffer less brain fog. (Therapy is expensive, but you might be able to find agencies in your area that provide it on a sliding scale.)
It’s important to accept that we may not be our best selves right now and that it may be somewhat out of our control. But, if we can keep in mind what feeds our brains in the coming weeks, it may help us regain some clear-headedness as we negotiate the challenges ahead.
— Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good‘s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine. Based at UC-Berkeley, Greater Good highlights ground breaking scientific research into the roots of compassion and altruism. Copyright Greater Good.