Foggy-brained from the pandemic? Six ways to stay mentally sharp

Published August 3, 2021, 8:17 AM

by Marie Buenaventura

You can retrain your brain

About 25 percent  of COVID-19 survivors experience what’s called “brain fog,” a general term to describe feelings of being mentally sluggish, confused, and pretty much “out of it,” a study by the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reported. These symptoms, which can last for months after a patient has recovered from the novel coronavirus, can also be accompanied by headaches, poor memory, and impaired sustained attention or inability to concentrate. 

Yet struggling to focus is not only for those who have had the life-threatening disease. With a pandemic that has still no end in sight, the world has had to live with long-term, low-grade stress, anxiety, and uncertainty—factors that tend to make the mind wander off, daydream, and zone out completely.

“It’s normal,” assures Donnabelle Chu, MD of the section of neurology of Makati Medical Center (MakatiMed). “Consider it your brain’s way of coping with the stress and fear of circumstances that are beyond your control, like the current pandemic.”

There’s even a scientific basis for it. “The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which processes our critical thinking and ability to focus, shuts down during a sudden, highly stressful situation—say a potential road accident involving you and another driver,” explains Dr. Chu. “It then gives way to that primitive part of the brain to respond quickly and protect you from danger.” The pandemic, while life threatening, is also ongoing and does not require a quick response. This affects our ability to focus and concentrate.

 “Stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which the body releases during particularly tense moments, can also overwhelm and exhaust the brain if they stay too long in the system or come in excessive amounts,” Dr. Chu adds.

The good news: Mental fogginess is temporary. Given the brain’s malleability—that is, its capacity to adapt to changes and new ways of thinking—you can regain your focus and concentration in no time. Here are six ways to do it:

Practice mindfulness.

When you sense your thoughts trailing off, get them back on track by gently reminding yourself where you are at that very moment. “Thinking too far ahead of scenarios that may or may not happen is not only unproductive, it is mentally and emotionally exhausting,” says Dr. Chu. “Best to concentrate on what you can do in the here and now.” Instead of multi-tasking, make a to-do list and check each entry as you accomplish them. This allows you to focus solely on the task at hand—rather than on a bunch of things that can overwhelm you. Listening to music also helps to relax your brain.

Train your brain.

Crossword puzzles, chess, Sudoku, solitaire, and other mind games that require you to think can sharpen your focus, the doctor says. “Spend at least 15 minutes playing any of these brain training games five days a week as they may enhance your working and short-term memory, as well as your processing and problem-solving skills,” she explains. These games are especially helpful for older adults, who may experience more memory and concentration problems that come with advanced age.

Exercise.

If mental exercises jog the brain, physical exercises like going for a walk or run, dancing, or doing yoga also offer multiple benefits to the brain. “Exercise promotes good circulation, is a great stress buster, and improves the quality of your sleep—all of which contribute to better thinking and concentration,” says Dr. Chu.

Healthy diet.

A healthy diet has been proven to improve your brain health. Diet such as those rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans, Omega 3, and whole grains can be beneficial to the brain’s ability to function well. Avoiding excessive alcohol intake also gives the brain a chance to heal and function properly.

Hannibal Buress Diet GIF by Adult Swim - Find & Share on GIPHY

Eliminate distractions.

Who has not zoned out from scrolling through their social media feeds? “If you must, check your Facebook or other social media accounts at specific times of the day only—like during your lunch break, or after you finish work,” she says. If you work from home, clear your desk of clutter and lower the volume of any music or movie streaming on the side, or shut it off completely.

Rest. Sometimes, a little time out can do wonders for your wellbeing. “Go for a walk. Take the entire day off. Give yourself enough time to sleep as it has been shown that the brain clears and eliminates toxins that affect our cognition when we sleep,” says Dr. Chu. “Don’t be so hard on yourself. These are challenging times and we’re all learning to cope in the best way we can.”

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