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What is lockdown brain and what can we do if we find ourselves suffering from it?

Liz Ritchie, Self-Care Therapist at St Andrew's Healthcare, features on Yahoo explaining how, as some restrictions are easing, we may be going through something quite common...

Even though we’re beginning to emerge out of lockdown, many of us have been left with what can only be described as some sort of lingering brain fog.

From putting the iron in the fridge, to forgetting how the heck you park a car, something strange has happened to our brains in lockdown that has left us scrabbling to remember how to do the simplest of tasks.

And despite some restrictions being eased, our minds are showing no signs of getting back to their old selves.

It’s no surprise, really. The last few months has seen many of us stuck at home for months on end with limited social interaction, having to work while also homeschooling and grappling with serious fears about the health of our loved ones.

It’s little wonder our brains have taken a hit.

“For almost four months now, the world has been trying to navigate the pandemic in a way that has required us to create a ‘new normal’,” says Liz Ritchie.

"This has not been easy and as a result ‘lockdown brain’ has left many struggling to concentrate on the simplest of tasks, being forgetful and finding even the most mindless of things to be a challenge.

“This can not only lead to an inability to focus but to an overall lack of motivation.”

Ritchie says a lack of concentration and an inability to focus on a single task is completely normal in times of high stress, anxiety and uncertainty.

“It’s really no surprise that we’re finding it hard to concentrate – almost overnight we have had to make the drastic transition from what was once routine, which consisted of tight schedules, social lives and the various commitments of modern life, to what has become for many a form of inertia, brain fog and lockdown fatigue.”

And there are many factors contributing to many of us feeling this way.

“Our brains are now having to deal with a situation never experienced before,” Ritchie says, “which involves managing the invisibility of the virus, managing our lack of control and being forced to abandon our normal habits and routines in order to survive, and all the while creating a toxic combination and a perfect breeding ground for stress and anxiety.“

These changes which have been imposed upon us will also inevitably upset our body clocks, which we rely on to help us feel normal in abnormal situations.”

The struggle to find a new kind of everyday normal has also taken its toll.  

“This brain fog is also particularly affected by the lack of markers in our day, which usually help us to manage our thoughts, especially if every day is the same as the previous one,” Ritchie says.

“We can now more easily get stuck in a mindset which can be difficult to move away from due to various factors that will include social contact and emotional engagement. We are left with feelings of numbness, which the NHS describes as ‘a way of coping with too much stress’.”

So how do we emerge from the brain fog and get back to feeling a bit more like our old selves?

Accept your brain is fatigued

According to Ritchie, the first step on conquering our lockdown brains is accepting the effect ‘COVID cognitive overload’ is having on us without judging ourselves too harshly.

“The ‘scatterbrain effect’ and the mental exhaustion that many of us are experiencing is not a mental illness or a personal shortcoming, but a natural response to living in high alert during stressful times,” she says.

Set achievable goals

Dr Lynda Shaw, neuroscientist, business psychologist and change specialist, says that as we try to establish a new ‘norm’ it is a good idea to make short-term goals that are relatively easy to achieve. “From these we will get a sense of satisfaction and feel motivated to carry on,” she says.

Prioritise wellbeing

Dr Shaw suggests asking yourself what you need to feel better. “Try to acknowledge the stresses and strains you are feeling and don’t beat yourself up over it,” she says.

“Having a good routine, doing lots of exercise, getting out for a walk to soak up some good vitamin D, eating well to nourish our brains and bodies, staying hydrated and good quality sleep are all key.

“So is taking some time for yourself and to have periods of calm and quiet.”

Create boundaries

With many of us spending the majority of our waking hours in our homes, it is easy for different areas of our life to merge, and this can have a knock-on impact on our brains. “Be mindful that working from home can blur the lines between work and personal life, so create boundaries in your home that identify one from the other,” suggests Ritchie.

Have downtime

Our brains require downtime to focus, so create diversions to reboot and restore. “Crosswords, puzzles, reading or doing something creative will allow you to re-engage without pressure, keeping your mind alert and supple,” says Ritchie.

Acknowledge that times are challenging

Ritchie says it is important to acknowledge these immensely difficult times and accept that we all need to recover in terms of both our mental and physical health. “These can be very effective practices that are particularly important during a crisis which disrupts our routines,” she says.

Look to the future

And make a plan for the next few months. “We were all derailed in our plans for earlier in the year, but now’s the time to re-evaluate them, refocus and reset them,” says Jivan Dempsey, change psychologist and consultant.