Nancy Solomon: It's The Takeaway. I'm Nancy Solomon in for Tanzina Vega. Good to be with you. After a year of isolation, wearing masks, and staying six feet apart, our brains, like most everything else, have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic. They've had to rewire themselves to deal with the stress and monotony of pandemic life. For some of us, that's led to serious Brain Fog.
Whether that's meant forgetting the names of acquaintances or getting easily distracted, you told us about it.
Lee: Hi, this is Lee from North Bergen, and heck yes, I've experienced Brain Fog over the past year. I've been struggling to find the words I'm looking for in simple conversation. I had trouble focusing and reading, I put things away in crazy spots, some in the freezer, and even had to start making a list for just about everything because I can't seem to hold on to things lately.
Lauren: Hey friends at The Takeaway, this is Lauren in Washington, DC. I think that I've definitely hit my dropout point. I know we've all pretty much slammed into that pandemic wall with various malaises and fogs and all of that stuff. Mine has impacted me where I basically am working from home and I get up from my desk and I walk into a different room and I have no idea why I'm there, what am I doing? My dog follows me and is staring at me, like, "Are you here for something?", and I have no clue. "What am I doing in this bedroom?" I'm just totally fuzzy in my brain.
Nancy: Unfortunately, I know too well what Brain Fog feels like. I wanted to hear from an expert about what's really happening to our brains right now, and how long this might last. Dr. Molly Colvin is a developmental neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Here's how she described this so-called Brain Fog.
Dr. Molly Colvin: I think of Brain Fog as being a change in the way that you're thinking that primarily relates to attention and memory. People often tell me that they have a hard time focusing or they're more easily distracted. They might start something and then forget to finish it because they start to do something else. They might miss a meeting or an appointment and suddenly realize that a couple of hours later, or even have trouble coming up with names or words that are super familiar, but you just can't quite get to it as quickly as you once did.
Nancy: Let's talk about why the pandemic is triggering this impairment with our cognitive functioning.
Dr. Molly Colvin: Brain Fog, as you pointed out, can happen over the course of our lifetimes, in the absence of really any major brain trauma. I think of it as a normal response, sometimes distress. When you encounter anything that's threatening, your brain really goes into overdrive, and focuses its attention and energy on the thing that is threatening to make sure that it won't hurt you, and so that you can also try to get away from it. From an evolutionary perspective, the stress response evolved to help us cope with predators in the wild.
If there's a tiger on the path ahead of you, then you need to focus all your attention on that tiger and get away from it. In the case of the pandemic, the threat hasn't been a tiger. It's been this invisible virus that has now killed more than half a million Americans. Of course, we've all been worried about the virus hurting us or a loved one. Your body has likely released some stress hormones and adrenaline that change the way that our brains and bodies work. We're really hyper-responsive to signals about that threat. It really changes the way that those attentional resources get deployed in our day-to-day world.
Nancy: I'm really surprised to hear you say that, actually, because if I had tried to predict what your answer would be, I would have expected it to be more about the monotony and the closing of our world down to one little place. That would have been my guess. Is that part of this at all as well?
Dr. Molly Colvin: The scope of our worlds has come down into a smaller environment. If you also think about what that has entailed, it's been a significant amount of change. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, many of us were really adjusting to a whole lot of transitions at once. If you think about any other stressful times in your life, like when you've moved or changed jobs or had a baby or grieved the loss of a loved one. Anytime you're going through those transitions, you can't go as much on automatic pilot. You have to think a little bit more and establish new routines.
I think one of the things that's made this pandemic so hard for many of us is that those major life events have been layered on top of the already stressful situation of living through the pandemic. It's almost like the existential threat of the virus has been running in the background, taking up resources. In some ways, it's, no pun intended, a little bit like a virus on a hard drive, where it runs in the background and we're not even aware of it all the time, but it's taking up energy and resources.
Nancy: Some people have contracted COVID-19 and experienced Brain Fog as a side effect of that. What we're talking about here is the effects on the brain experienced by everyone right now, not just people who have contracted COVID-19. What are some of the key differences between those two different things going on?
Dr. Molly Colvin: The way that we're talking about Brain Fog right now is as a normal stress response, as part of a normal stress response. The term 'Brain Fog' and some of these cognitive changes that we're talking about are often also the same cognitive changes that people have been talking about in long-haul COVID. People who've had COVID who are now describing cognitive changes, but they also are things that can be seen in other medical conditions. Sometimes I hear patients talk about this after they've had chemotherapy, or they may be having early symptoms of a neurodegenerative disease like Alzheimer's.
That's a situation where you can experience some of these same symptoms, and they shouldn't be ignored if you've got other underlying conditions. For most of us, these kinds of everyday blips on our radar screen, is the way I think about it, is likely really to be an indicator that we're under stress, and that it's time to listen to our bodies and our minds, and maybe focus on things that matter, like our health and that of our loved ones.
Nancy: Are there going to be any long-term effects of this? What should we expect even once life returns to what we hope will be close to normal?
Dr. Molly Colvin: Going through this pandemic has been traumatic, it's hard to find anyone who hasn't been touched in a significant way by this. I think that kind of collective trauma is going to be something that we carry with us. I think that what we can also expect is that there should be some recovery as the stress level declines. I think, importantly, as our world starts to open back up again, one of the most powerful balms for Brain Fog and for stress in general is social connectedness. That's something that we've all had a hard time maintaining over the course of the last year, even in a real way. I think it will be perhaps a longer recovery than some of us may anticipate. It's important to be compassionate and kind to ourselves as we go through it.
Nancy: In addition to social connectedness, are there other things that we can be doing to help push through or cope with the Brain Fog?
Dr. Molly Colvin: Some of the things that are most important around managing stress in general, we all know that they're hard to implement, but they're the things related to self-care. So, making sure that you're on a normal sleeping routine and exercising. I think, also, focusing on the things that you can control. I think many of us have probably heard the term mindfulness, which is really about being in the here and the now and being aware of your environment. Taking a big deep breath and noticing how that feels in your body or listening, now that it's spring, to the birds chirp or noticing the flowers on your sidewalk. Those are the kinds of things that can bring your attention away from the things that are stressful into the present moment. We know that if you can stay rooted in that present moment, it often will allow your mind to relax a little bit and your body to relax as well.
Nancy: Dr. Molly Colvin is a developmental neuropsychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Colvin, thanks so much for joining us.
Dr. Molly Colvin: Thank you again for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Speaker 5: I have experienced Brain Fog over the last year, which I knew, when it was happening, was related to being very stressed. I then began to seriously undertake the practice of meditation and doing things to lower my stress, which then seemed to put an end to the Brain Fogs. I've learned to be a lot more patient than I already was, a lot more flexible than I already was, because there is so much happening and so much where you are trying to take control just of yourself, because your external environment is out of your control in this pandemic.
Steve: [laughs] Brain Fog? Yes. Let's just say that we could have an easy half-hour segment talking about this, how Brain Fog has manifested for me over the last year, day-to-day, with all this COVID insanity we've all been dealing with. Yes, it's not been fun. It's definitely not been enjoyable. By the way, this is Steve from the Denton, Texas area again.
Katrina: This is Katrina from Maplewood, New Jersey. Brain Fog, like keys in the refrigerator? Not yet, but days of the week, months, seasons, where my shoes are, what my children are doing? There are days when I just can't figure it all out.
Speaker 8: Have I experienced Brain Fog over the last year? Yes. Lots of fog. My to-do list used to have just a few items to roll over to the next day. Now, it's more than half. Things do seem to be a bit busier, yes, but part of it is certainly due to not being able to get done what I felt like I could before. Fog is a factor. Is this a pent-up pandemic thing? Is it a getting older thing? Is it a health-related thing or something else I haven't thought of?
Seanna: Hi, it's Seanna. I have had fibromyalgia and ADHD for several years. So, I already had Brain Fog pretty bad, but since COVID, I've had to learn so many new things. I'm a pastor, and we've had to learn so much about how to continue on in the age of COVID. There's just been workshops and classes and videos and everything to constantly try to figure out what we're supposed to be doing. My head is just jam-packed with new information. I just have been experiencing Brain Fog to the extent that it has really messed with my productivity, my organization. About half the time, I don't know which direction to turn from one minute to another. This has been a really difficult time for me.
DD: This is DD from San Francisco. I find that these days I seem to be very forgetful, but thanks to my phone, my task list app on it, and Google, I'm able to remember almost everything as long as I can remember where I put my phone.
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