I’m not a big fan of non-elastic waisted pants, but I wear them and know how they work. Or I thought I did. I put on a pair of jeans recently and went to slip my belt through the belt loops and I couldn’t remember which side I normally started on. I just picked a side and buckled it, but it didn’t feel right. Can a belt feel right? I think the excess fabric is normally on the left, I thought. Or is it? I forgot how to put on my own damn belt.
My memory and attention to detail is usually exceptional; recalling facts, important to-dos, items needed at the store, and everyone’s schedule is second-nature and done with what now seems like unappreciated ease. My belt confusion and forgetfulness is new for me, but has been getting worse over the last several months. The longer we have been in this pandemic, the harder my brain has to work to remember stuff — if I remember at all. If you also have a corner of your garage filled with recycling and trash because you forgot to roll the bins down on what was supposed to be pick-up day and now have bins that are too full to hold more stuff, then you’re not alone. This pandemic has turned our brains into sieves.
Elisha Wilson Beach tells Scary Mommy her brain is “on overload.” “Trying to balance my work with literally 55 Zooms a week between my four kids (yes I counted them) [means] I’m in a perpetual cycle of forgetting something,” she says. “I forget at least one Zoom class a day. I walk into a room at least once a day and forget what I went in there for. I can’t tell you how many times I have forgotten where I am driving because it’s like my brain can no longer comprehend how to drive and do other things at the same time.”
Anyone else’s neck hurt from nodding too hard in agreement? My anxiety also shot up because I can feel that stress in my bones. And then I forgot what the hell I was supposed to be reading and writing about. This is because we have all been in a state of chronic stress for a prolonged amount of time. We have been multitasking media — meaning we use multiple media streams at once — every day for over a year. And we have been doing this in isolation or very small bubbles with little variation and minimal contact with friends, family, and co-workers. Studies show that each of those factors negatively impact memory function, but when they overlap continuously for a long period of time? We never had a chance.
“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist at UC Irvine told The Atlantic. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.”
Even if we are navigating this pandemic with comfort and privilege, the stress of unpredictability and lack of stimulation, i.e. boredom, can change our brains. When we’re stressed, our body releases cortisol. It’s the “fight or flight” chemical that protects us and is beneficial in short bursts. When we’re under stress for long periods of time, our body makes more cortisol than we need and more than we can release. The excess cortisol eats away at our brain’s ability to function properly, can kill brain cells, and shrink the prefrontal cortex which holds the keys to learning and memory. Add this to the decreased use of our hippocampuses because we seem to be stuck in a Groundhog’s Day-like loop of repetition and you get Elly Lonon.
“I was in the shower yesterday, stopped to write something down,” Lonon tells Scary Mommy. “Then I closed my left hand and was horrified to find a white, creamy substance squishing out. I frantically flung it off and washed my hands. Then I remembered it was conditioner.”
Studies and sales reports show that people have been coping with stress and boredom with alcohol. While this may provide temporary relief, alcohol is literally fuel to the fire in our brains because the more people drink, the shittier their working memory becomes.
Vaccination rates are increasing and the weather is improving and giving us more options for outdoor activities but we are still very much in the thick of a dangerous pandemic. So what can we do to improve or mitigate the effects of COVID-19 forgetfulness? We can be more intentional to add variety into our days. Change the location where you work if you can. Listen to a podcast or pick up a book. Try a new recipe. Take a different route to the grocery store. Anything you can do to change up your routine and force your brain to work in different ways is good for you.
Getting more activity and movement into your day helps too. Exercise improves memory function, but it also boosts your mood and can help with sleep. Walking, stretching, and dancing are all great ways to build 5-10 minutes of movement into your day several times a day. A (COVID-safe) walk with a friend would be doubly beneficial.
It’s also important to be gentle on yourself. We are living through what better be the only pandemic we will ever have to experience. Remind yourself that it’s impossible to function the same way we did before the pandemic, and it will still be difficult even after we are on the other side of it. The pace we have been trying to keep is not healthy or sustainable. Try to be proud of what you are accomplishing instead of beating yourself for some of the misses.
Julie Minor sums it up pretty well for us all: “I have ADHD so a lack of consistency and structure means all of the cues I need to do the things are not there and I’m like, ‘WAIT. WHAT AM I DOING WITH THIS PLASTIC BAG IN MY HAND STARING AT THE PANTRY?’ I don’t know. I’m just there. Staring at my pantry. It’s The Blur. The past year has been an immersion into The Blur.”
Take heart, friends. I was going to say something else to comfort you, but I can’t remember what it was.