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Do you still have 'pandemic brain'?

February 21, 2022

In the months following the start of the pandemic, some people reported experiencing a kind of ‘fog’, where they found it hard to concentrate, think straight and remember things. An article in The Guardian from summer 2021 described it as ‘pandemic brain’. This is perfectly understandable: we were all reeling from the shock of our lives changing so much, so fast, and trying to cope with a lot of uncertainty and worry.

Brain fog is now recognised as one of the potential symptoms of long COVID, a condition which medical experts are still working to understand. We covered some of these common symptoms in a previous blog. What if you’re not suffering the after-effects of the virus, but you continue to feel tired, unmotivated, distracted, or just a bit fuzzy, two years on?

According to ieso CBT therapist Nicola Smeeth, you won’t be alone. “The brain can take months and even years to adapt itself to a new rule – and we’ve had multiple sets of new rules thrown at us,” she explains. “Human beings have a learning cycle; we can’t just get on with things when new rules come in, or keep adapting as they change, which they have done continually. It takes a conscious effort each time, and it doesn’t help when the rules are unclear! The brain tries to keep up, but it’s utterly draining.”

Along with the government’s official COVID-19 rules, we have our own internal rules about what we feel safe and comfortable with, as does everybody else, and we have to take these into account every time we leave the house. Each hospitality venue and office has different protocols, and nobody seems to know what they’re supposed to do on public transport! The constant need to read situations and adjust our minds is mentally exhausting.

It can also cause stress if others around us don’t stick to the rules or behave in line with our own beliefs, says Nicola Smeeth. “In lockdown, our experiences confirmed that everyone was doing the same as us. Now things are looser, and people’s behaviour comes down to personal decisions and perceptions of risk. The more we see things that match our beliefs, the more confident we feel. Whereas if you’re wearing a mask on the train, for instance, but nobody else is, this can lead to confusion and create anxiety.”

On top of this, our brains have been in a state of high alert for a long time now. While we’ve come a long way since March 2020, things are not back to normal, and unpredictability will be a part of life for some time yet. Even if we’re not aware of it, a chunk of our consciousness is still occupied with thinking about COVID on a daily basis, making risk assessments and decisions to keep ourselves and others safe. It’s no wonder if we feel distracted and fatigued.

Be compassionate with yourself. None of us should expect ourselves to have ‘got over it’ by now, or be beating ourselves up if we’re not feeling quite right. Recognise what you’ve been through – and are still going through. We’re not programmed to sail through times of great upheaval, and if you’re still struggling a bit that’s very natural.

Accept that it’s OK if you don’t know all the rules, all the time. These vary enormously between different establishments, businesses, services, countries…it’s impossible to keep up. Learn them as and when you need to, for example before you have to travel or attend an event.

Talk to others about their experiences. We’re all finding our feet again, learning how to negotiate situations and interactions in a world that’s not quite normal. Sharing how we’re finding this can help us to feel better.

Allow for others with different ‘rules’. There will always be people who are more or less cautious or tolerant of risk than we are. We’ve all had different experiences during the pandemic, and everyone needs to manage things at their own pace as we edge back into society again.

Refocus your mind on the life you want. Many of us will have lost sight of the bigger picture, and perhaps become used to doing less. The message that staying at home would save lives was extremely powerful, and it’s not easy for everyone to fall back into their old routines. If you’re less active than you used to be, or you feel a bit stuck, take time to think about what matters most to you, and what you did before the pandemic that you want to do again. What would you like your life to look like next month? Do you want to continue as you are, or do something differently?

If you find that feelings of anxiety, stress or low mood are having an impact on your ability to live the life you want, find out how online CBT can help.

ieso Online Therapy
This blog has been written by a member of the clinical team at ieso.

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