18 months into this pandemic with its unpredictability and uncertainty, many of us are experiencing what’s being called pandemic brain, or brain fog. The most common symptoms are forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating but can also include mental ‘sluggishness’, difficulty making decisions and irritability.

So what is ‘pandemic brain fog’, why does it happen, what can be done about it and when should we worry that there might be something more going on?

In a nutshell, the symptoms of pandemic brain are in fact, the symptoms of chronic stress. When we are going through a stressful time in our lives, whatever the cause, our bodies release high levels of the two main stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones are designed to help us run from danger or stand up and fight it – the ‘fight or flight’ response. This was especially helpful back in the days when our ancestors may have suddenly come up against a hungry tiger. A surge of cortisol and adrenaline sped up our heart rate, pumped blood into our muscles and directed our brains to shut down ‘unnecessary’ higher order cognitive functions so we could act quickly. If we survived the encounter with the tiger, our stress hormones would return to their normal low levels in a relatively short space of time.

It’s easy to see that our bodies and brains are not designed to withstand long-lasting high levels of these stress hormones. It becomes harder to access the parts of our brain we need to make good decisions or remember things. What follows is forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating or completing complex tasks and irritability.

Could it be something else?

The first thing most people worry about when they are experiencing forgetfulness is dementia. The memory loss of dementia is much more persistent and progressive than the normal forgetfulness we all experience from time to time, even during times of stress – forgetting where you left your glasses or why you walked into the kitchen, versus forgetting what the glasses are for or where the kitchen is.

In other words, forgetfulness that has progressed beyond occasionally annoying to something that is interfering with the ability to function in normal daily life. There are often other changes in dementia as well, such as personality changes or persistent confusion with time or place.

The symptoms of chronic stress are very similar to the symptoms of depression. In fact, chronic stress is a well-known risk factor for depression.

Brain fog symptoms due to stress tend to fluctuate, some days are better than others. Depression symptoms tend to remain persistently stubborn for more than 2-3 weeks and don’t really improve day to day. Included in these persistent feelings are often feelings of hopelessness, lack of enjoyment in things that used to be enjoyable, sleep and appetite disturbances or excessive anger.

What to do next

Persistent, worsening or worrying symptoms like the ones described above should be assessed urgently by your GP.

If you think you have pandemic brain due to stress, there are things you can do to alleviate some of the symptoms. Ensuring you structure your day with familiar routines, getting daily exercise and rest breaks, staying connected to family and friends and eating a healthy diet all help. See our article on mental well-being during difficult times for more tips. 

If you are concerned there could be something more going on, or need help with your stress management, please talk to your GP. We are here to help and are available for telehealth consults over the phone, via video or, of course, in person.

Photo by C Dustin on Unsplash

Further reading:

Dementia Australia

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