Chronic stress during the COVID-19 pandemic – coupled with fewer social interactions and more time at home – could be impacting the brain. Many individuals have reported feelings of “brain fog,” confusion, disorganization and forgetfulness after a year of stress, anxiety, cancelled plans and physical distance from other people. These feelings of fogginess and forgetfulness have yet to be fully explored by scientists, but existing research about brain function could offer clues as to how the pandemic is affecting individuals.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, both in structure and how it functions. Brains can change in several ways: new skills and new experiences can create new neural connections; repetition and practice can strengthen existing neural connections; and synapses in the brain can become weaker if a connection in the brain isn’t used as much. Neuroplasticity can result from:
- New experiences
- Paying attention
- Social interaction
- Traumatic events
As more individuals have made the switch to remote work and virtual school, the number of new events our brains encounter and must adapt to diminish. Gone is the commute, the small talk in line for coffee, navigating a large party or concert or the energy of a crowded sidewalk or hallway. Which means many of the skills the brain was used to executing become weaker; and the chances for the brain to create new neural connections through new, unexpected challenges become fewer. These can result in a brain that is less plastic. Chronic stress can also affect the brain in the following ways:
- High levels of cortisol – the stress hormone – can wear down the brain’s ability to function properly.
- Synapse regulation can be disrupted, which leads to an avoidance of social interactions.
- The amygdala – the part of the brain that controls the fear response – can increase in size, which makes the brain more receptive to stress.
- The prefrontal cortex in the brain can shrink – which is the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning.
Overcoming the fog
There are activities that can help an individual with their thinking and memory, which also coincidentally can help to manage stress. Here are some strategies to try:
- Avoid drugs and alcohol: Substances can adversely affect the brain and cause symptoms of stress and anxiety to flare up.
- Eat a healthy diet: Diets including fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains have been shown to help improve thinking, memory and brain health.
- Exercise: Talk to your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, but aerobic exercise has been shown to benefit brain health. Work towards 30 minutes of exercise each day, at least five days per week.
- Find opportunities to socialize: Humans are social animals. Despite a continued need for social distancing precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic if individuals are sick or unvaccinated, there are ways to interact with others safely including phone and video calls and outdoor gatherings and visits.
- Get enough sleep: Forming a healthy sleep routine is crucial to allow the brain and body to heal and rest. Aim for at least 8 hours at night, for adults.
- Try something new: The brain needs stimulation. Try listening to new music, meditating, trying a new hobby, learning a language or visiting a new park.
Dr. Amy McKenzie, M.D., is a medical director of provider engagement at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. More from MIBluesPerspectives:
- How Pandemic Stress Could Impact Behavioral Health Treatment
- Has the Pandemic Changed Behavioral Health Care Delivery Forever?
- The Importance of Asking for Help
Photo credit: Drazen Zigic