Have you ever left your desk to go get something from the kitchen, and once you’re there, you have no idea why you’re there? Or maybe you’re working from home and send a daily work report and forget what month, day, or day of the week you’re in? It might even be someone’s face that you forget you know. These minor memory hiccups aren’t unusual. You might have encountered them in the past as well, but somehow, over the last couple of years, they became more frequent. The same happened to other symptoms, and it has nothing to do with you.
The last two years have been a nightmare for most of the world’s population. The changes we all had to go through, our routines being thrown out the window, and the overall uncertainty that came with the pandemic challenged us in more ways than we might be aware of. Whether from being faced with financial struggles or the loss of a loved one, the impact the past two years had on us isn’t only from COVID but from the pandemic as well.
Living in a Pandemic
We can all agree that humans are social creatures. We thrive in groups. When in danger, we huddle together. We depend on each other no matter how independent we see ourselves. We all need each other to survive. That has been our life not only for generations but since the dawn of civilization all the way back to living in caves as hunters and gatherers. It’s how we survived. Our primary instinct is to work together when faced with adversity.
When the pandemic began, and the first sign of adversity came, our stress levels climbed. Then social distancing became the second most used phrase everywhere, and they told us to stay away from each other. They told us to go against our basic instincts and maintain distance from each other. Lockdowns began, and we couldn’t enjoy the little things in life anymore. We couldn’t see family and friends, couldn’t go for picnics, and our routine was dismantled. Instead of going for coffee, we would meet our friends on social media. Instead of going to work, if we still had one, we saw our colleagues on Zoom. The boss told everyone to prioritize their health and find ways to relax while expecting gratitude because they still had a job.
While all these restrictive measures were necessary and adhering to them, when in place, is essential, the constant feed with small doses of stress affects our health even if we never contracted COVID. Living through a pandemic is forcing us to live in a continual state of stress simply from the uncertainty of it all. These effects led scientists to evaluate a condition people call “Pandemic Brain”.
While not considered a disorder, the pandemic brain is seen as the effect of dealing with a long-term pandemic. Raquel Gur, Professor of psychiatry, neurology, and radiology from the University of Pennsylvania, conducted an international study to see how people are dealing with the pandemic. Countless of them described feeling “flooded with emotion” or “being dysregulated”, and Gur realized they were all experiencing one form or another of brain fog.
Looking at it from a physiological perspective, we need to understand what’s happening in our brain. When faced with stressful situations, our eyes and ears feed information into our brains. The amygdala processes this information to determine if what we are seeing or hearing is stressful. If it determines it is, it sends word to the hypothalamus that alerts the entire body. The adrenal glands, in response, pump adrenaline into our bloodstream. Heartbeat and breathing increase because our muscles need more blood to stay alert and our brain more oxygen to react to any incoming threat. All of this is a primary function and response to stress. Because of this, when threatened by something, we react faster, are stronger, and act straightforwardly to protect ourselves. It’s why we run faster when chased by dogs, why we don’t fall asleep when scared and why we heat our body when in extremely cold conditions.
It’s our defense system. The amygdala takes over and makes us react instantaneously to the threat, placing the prefrontal cortex (responsible for logical thinking) in the backseat. You don’t have time to think. You just react. However, when the threat disappears, everything returns to normal, breathing and heartbeats become steady, and our bodies relax. If the danger doesn’t go away, cortisol is released, telling our body to remain in that state.
The problem is that, after two years of this pandemic and a constant supply of stress, the amygdala continues to have control. While in the short term, this physical response saves our lives. However, in the long run, it can lead to burnout which can cause the following issues. We’ll swiftly go over some psychological effects of the pandemic and cover a few tips on how to overcome them.
Paying attention, solving problems, or organizing became things we struggled with. We often find that we can’t remember words or simply forget what we are talking about in mid-sentence. It’s becoming more challenging to keep up with rapid information or perform daily tasks. All these might seem like early signs of dementia, and while they can be, they are also a sign of pandemic-related brain fog. If our body is in a constant state of stress, the amygdala is in charge, and the prefrontal cortex is not. The brain takes focus away from basic activities, like communicating or grocery shopping, as it’s told that it needs to stay alert to stay alive. This results in feeling overwhelmed, confused, and unsettled because we’re no longer functioning normally.
What to do: Go on frequent walks and get as much fresh air as possible to improve the brain oxygenation process. It’s not necessary to start exercising per se. Simply walking can go a long way if done in a natural environment like a park, the beach, or light hikes. Diving into hobbies can both help and worsen brain fog. Choose activities that don’t need you to focus too much. It will help your brain relax and diminish the levels of cortisol released in your system. Look into doodling or buy paint-by-numbers books that don’t overstimulate your brain. We’re not seeking to give our brain problems to solve, but activities to relax.
Two years of uncertainty resulted in a spike of anxiety diagnoses worldwide. More and more people seek professional help from psychologists or turn to substance abuse to deal with how their lives have been affected. Most of them don’t even know why they feel anxious, but they do. From being uncertain about your monthly salary to simply feeling overwhelmed by the prolonged heightened state you’ve been in, people are trying to deal with everything. Talking to a psychologist will help; substance abuse can do more harm.
When cities, states, and countries started to open up, and we could go out again, social anxiety hit. Suddenly, being in a crowd of people outdoors didn’t feel right. Our heartbeat intensified, our breathing became erratic, and fear entered our bodies. We no longer felt comfortable and leaving seemed like the best idea because the sense of threat just wouldn’t go away. Having a conversation with someone feels draining. Going to the store is tiring. Simple tasks feel overwhelming because we have to fight anxiety while performing them. Every action uses more energy, and holidays don’t feel like holidays. It’s just the same state of mind in a different place. You don’t relax. You just change the scenery.
What to do: Meditation exercises are ideal for anxiety as it gives your mind a moment just to be. Look into meditation music or sounds easy to find online to help you get into that state of mind. Sometimes, not thinking is hard and meditation isn’t as easy as most people might think. Breathing exercises are essential as psychologists suggest people with anxiety or panic attacks take long, deep breaths in, holding the air in for a few moments. Before you feel out of breath, release it slowly until your lungs deflate entirely. Do this a few times until you feel your mind relax.
While disrupted sleep is another side-effect of the long-term pandemic, it can also be seen as a result of anxiety. Covidsomnia or coronasomnia are terms used to describe disrupted sleep due to pandemic-related stress. We all know that stress and sleep don’t mix well. Regardless of the type of stress experienced, the primal body response is insomnia. The body needs to keep you alert in case you need to act. Everything from uncertainty to the overflow of information disrupts our sleep patterns. Not knowing when it’s going to end affects our sleep.
We’re all experiencing burnout from everything that has been happening over the last two years. Staying in disconnects us from our circadian rhythm, and the psychological impact of light goes as deep as increasing or decreasing our levels of wakefulness. But stress and anxiety keep us up anyway. We need social distancing, which leads to isolation, which results in depression, and depression causes sleep issues. It’s a vicious cycle, and our bodies aren’t built to live in these circumstances.
What to do: If you’re experiencing trouble falling asleep, try changing your sleeping position. Tossing and turning are proven to help our minds drift off to sleep easier. If you often wake up in the middle of the night, open a window before you go to sleep. Especially if you live in a warm to moderate climate, a slightly cracked window will let the air circulate and keep it cool. Another thing that you can try is exercising before you go to sleep. Anything from cardio to sets of pushups, pullups, or other drills that tire the muscles also work on the brain by releasing endorphins. A warm drink like tea or milk goes a long way. Try to keep away from alcohol as while it does help one fall asleep, it also tires our bodies making us need more sleep to recover. Place your phone in another room, turn off the tv, put ambient sounds in the background like rainfall and drifting to sleep, and focusing on self-care will improve your sleep.
During the first year of the pandemic, rates of depression tripled across the US. Research conducted by Boston University underlined that around 8% of US adults were dealing with depression pre-pandemic. By April of 2020, that number jumped to 28%. Going further into the pandemic, we saw depression cases increasing to 32% in 2021.
What we know about depression is that it’s often a result of traumatic events. Things like terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or other immense emotional shocks trigger it, but it was a pandemic in this case. The difference between simple depression and pandemic depression is that while dealing with depression, the intensity levels out in time, the pandemic depression maintains its intensity. Experiencing job loss, the loss of a loved one, or loneliness can, in time, evolve into depression. If we look at how our lives have been over the last two years, it’s not a surprise that depression numbers are increasing.
Psychologists understand that depression has a significant impact on our bodies because its nature keeps us from fighting against it. We feel demotivated, sad, bored, and overall uninterested in the simplest aspects of our lives. It’s challenging to find joy or experience things that make you happy when all you feel like doing is curl up in bed and sleep, waiting for the next day to go by exactly like the current one went. Still, we can force ourselves to do something even if we don’t feel like doing anything.
What to do: When you’re feeling down, the last thing you want to do is exercise, talk to a friend or go for a hike. The problem is that precisely those activities can help you get out of depression. Trying something new, something a bit more challenging but simple in essence, will take you out of your comfort zone. By doing this, you are no longer on autopilot, which is what depression often feels like. Your mind and body need to react because the activity is different. Finding things that can spark your interest and changing your routine makes you more active and present in that moment. Redecorate your home or simply move things around, change their location, switch the sofa with the armchair, and you will no longer be able to live your life on autopilot. You will have to be present unless you want to fall in the middle of your living room because you moved the sofa. Find some books for light reading, simple novels, or poetry that allow you to visualize the action. Our minds instinctively create positive images in our heads, and by reading some simple fiction like Robinson Crusoe, we give our minds simple tasks to perform. Read the word, the sentence, the paragraph and visualize the action.
All of the above are perfectly normal reactions from our bodies and minds. While many people like to enjoy the occasional adrenaline rush, living in a constantly alert state of mind is tiring. If the mind thinks it’s under threat, the response will be anxiety and the feeling that it will never go away. While the body wants to keep us constantly alert, we can’t stay in that state for long, but we have no choice, and brain fog sets in, anxiety, depression, and sleep issues. Seeking medical help might be necessary in some cases, but the only thing this will say about you is that you are aware that you are going through something and are doing something about it.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. Your emotions and what you are going through are real, and they have an impact on your life. There’s no shame in wanting to improve your life, and no one should be considered “less than” for doing something about it.