Sometimes it manifests as a word that is right on the tip of my tongue, teasing at the edge of my memory. I can say what rhymes with the word and I can think of synonyms, but the word itself remains just beyond reach. And it’s usually a common, everyday word, like backyard or blanket or Ibuprofen, or a word I should know because I’m a writer, like circumvent, evidence, or agitate. But I just can’t think of it.
Other times, I catch myself unable to perform simple cognitive tasks that used to come easily to me. Last week I was doing my taxes, transferring dates and monetary amounts from a bank statement to an expense sheet. In the past I would memorize the two numbers from the bank statement — date, amount — and then key them into my expense worksheet. But I can’t hold onto the two numbers anymore. My brain won’t hold them both at once. (And please don’t @ me about how much more efficient it is to simply export the data — I know. This is how I do it.)
The point is, my memory is shit. My loss of function is so obvious and thick that it feels tangible, or maybe the opposite of tangible, because it’s like there is just empty space where there was once something I could grasp onto.
If you can relate to this, and if frustrating memory slips are something you’ve only begun to experience since the beginning of the pandemic, you’re not alone. I asked on my public Facebook page if anyone else was suffering from memory troubles that had begun since the COVID-19 pandemic, and a virtual tsunami of yes flooded the comment section.
“I couldn’t come up with ‘fork’ yesterday. I just wanted to cry instead of talking.”
“I have trouble remembering little day-to-day things, like I forget on the daily if the kids have had lunch.”
“I took two showers one day because I forgot I had already showered.”
“It’s like my chemo brain during treatment for cancer.”
“It’s almost like pregnancy brain for me.”
“Constantly picking up my phone to look something up and can never remember what it was I wanted to know.”
“I have a terrible memory due to adhd and other stuff, but now it’s barely functioning.”
“I’m 59 I thought it was age related! I can not recall words at times … you know, difficult words like ‘door.’”
Any of that sound familiar? If so, there is a strong possibility your foggy brain could be caused by stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve undergone a collective trauma — our world has been utterly transformed by a monster we can’t even see. For many, what little control they had over their life has been ripped out from underneath them. Even those who are healthy, who still have jobs and food in the fridge and a safe place to be, often feel an acute loss of control. Because our health is not guaranteed. Neither are our jobs or the food in our fridge or our homes. Many stores still don’t have toilet paper — what if we run out of other commodities we have always taken for granted? Conspiracy theories run amok on our social media feeds, and mask-less people gather in crowds like COVID-19 just disappeared. Horrific injustices against black people rightly shift the focus from a disease we can’t see to a disease too many of us refuse to see. It feels like everything is out of our control.
How Stress Affects Memory
When we’re stressed, our bodies release adrenaline, energizing us to either fight or flee. In small doses appropriate to the situation, this is not harmful — in fact, it can be useful to focus our attention and respond quickly and efficiently to intense situations. Stress is a normal part of life, and our bodies and brains have evolved to adapt and respond to some degree of daily stress. But the panic and uncertainty that comes with a pandemic is stress on a whole different level. It’s unfamiliar, unrelenting, and there’s no end in sight.
When a stressor persists — when the adrenal “gas pedal” remains pressed, the body responds by releasing cortisol. Cortisol is part of our daily hormonal pattern, rising and falling throughout the day in response to our circadian rhythms, lowering at night before bedtime and rising again in the very early morning (with elevated levels of cortisol sometimes causing disturbing or vivid dreams).
In large, constant doses, cortisol can trigger significant health problems, including damaged blood vessels and arteries, increased blood pressure, and elevated risk of heart attack or stroke. Persistent high levels of cortisol can also increase appetite and cause weight gain. And then, of course, there’s memory loss.
Cortisol impacts the function of the hippocampus — the part of our brain responsible for memory. Studies show that persistent exposure to stress, and the elevated levels of cortisol that come with it, mess with our memory. The effect can be more pronounced in individuals who’ve been diagnosed with PTSD or depression. So if you’re a trauma survivor or you have depression and you’ve been wondering what the heck is going on with your memory, it may be due to pandemic-related stress.
My memory difficulties actually began before the COVID-19 pandemic hit — I came out as gay and got divorced last year, so the pandemic has been a special surprise addition to an already lengthy period of elevated cortisol, ha ha, exciting! I’m super ready for the universe to take its foot off my “adrenal gas pedal” so I can stop overdosing on cortisol.
If, like me, you’re all set with being constantly stressed and not being able to remember basic vocabulary or why you just opened that cabinet, here are a few things we can do to help ourselves:
Meditate. Sit for five to ten minutes and focus on your breath, or download a meditation app. I have found this helpful despite not being a very meditate-y person.
Keep a regular daily schedule. Circadian rhythms are incredibly important for managing stress. That means consistent meal and sleep times. I have an unbelievably difficult time settling down at night, and I tend toward snacking at odd intervals rather than eating regular meals, so I definitely need to do better here.
Eat well. Stress makes us crave comfort food, and that’s great and fine and you shouldn’t shame yourself for eating what you crave, but do try to also eat nutrient-rich foods that will support your body’s natural immune and stress responses.
Forgive yourself for not being a quarantine queen. I don’t know about you, but a majority of my stress stems from feeling like I’m not reacting the way I’m “supposed” to be reacting to any given stressor. Why can’t I just focus and bake a loaf of sourdough or finish my book? But, as Jen from Dead to Me would tell you, your reaction is just your reaction. We’re allowed to have difficult, complicated feelings right now. We’re allowed to not be functioning at our best. We’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic.
But here’s hoping that some of these coping mechanisms can pump the brakes on our adrenals and maybe, just maybe, one of these days we’ll walk into a room and remember why we came into it.