Yes, as the title indicates last night I actually forgot the term “ice cube”. Also, I had to put up a sign reading: “Today is Thursday, March 19, 2020” above my desk (actually a side table in our bedroom which has now become my office). But, I’m not worried about whether I’m suddenly experiencing early onset dementia. Why not? Because I’m under a great deal of stress. So are you.
Are you finding it difficult to remember what day it is, struggling to concentrate and make decisions, experiencing difficulty sleeping or feeling absent-minded? Are those around you noticing you’re more agitated or cranky? Are you becoming suddenly aware that you can’t remember basic things like whether you ate lunch or what those frozen thingies we put in drinks to make them cold are called?
No, you’re not going crazy. You’re under stress. Stress has quite profound impacts on the brain. Stress can inhibit the way we form and retrieve memories and affect our sleep as well as a whole host of other impacts. Stress can also affect our sleep, and when we don’t sleep well the ensuing exhaustion can also cause temporary cognitive impairment that includes struggles with attention and working memory.
Sounds scary, right? The good news is we can do simple things to reduce the impacts of stress on our brains. First, give yourself a break. Stop saying things like “what is wrong with me!?” “Usually I can get this task done so much faster!” or “Why do I keep making mistakes and messing things up?” If you forget to complete a task, become flustered or agitated or can’t find the paper you made a note on 20 seconds ago, take a deep breath. Avoid the negative self-talk and remind yourself that you are under stress and that you are doing the best you can.
Second, practice good self-care. The following basic practices can help mitigate the impacts of stress on your brain, not to mention your overall health and wellbeing:
1. Engage in physical activity for at least 30 minutes a day. Yes, you have many things to do and likely many people depending on you to do them. Exercise will help you be more effective and more truly present. Take a walk or go crazy with a Richard Simmons video.
2. Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet. I know it is hard right now, trust me, I know. If cooking meals is challenging right now, make a healthy smoothie. If you are craving comfort food like nobody’s business, have a small amount alongside healthier options. If you fall off the bandwagon and dinner consists of binge eating a bag of chips while drinking a glass of wine and scrolling frantically through your Facebook feed, don’t give into negative self-talk about it, just try to eat some fruit and something with protein for breakfast the next morning.
3. Drink lots of water.
4. Do deep breathing exercises. You can find lots of tools on-line to guide you in simple breathing exercises. Take five minutes between tasks and do a breathing exercise while listening to calming music. Often, we think that the external situation needs to change in order for us to be less stressed. We don’t. We just need to breathe. This is a good thing, because while we have almost zero control over the external situation, we do have control over our breath.
5. Limit alcohol consumption.
6. Get proper sleep (6-8 hours per night). This is easier said than done. What if you have trouble going to sleep or awaken in a cold sweat after having a nightmare in which you’re at the grocery store social distance shopping and someone screams at you that you have to leave, because you forgot to wear your hazmat suit? (Yup, actually had that nightmare). First, DO NOT turn to a screen. Do deep breathing exercises. Read a book (preferably not a sci-fi one about a pandemic). Get out a yoga mat and do some light stretching (child’s pose is especially calming). As a general rule, try to stop screen time at least an hour before bedtime.
We’re not always conscious of the stress we’re under. I once heard a hospice nurse say that when she first started working in hospice she was deeply enjoying the work and loved taking care of the patients and their families; she didn’t feel stressed. But then one day she was walking down the hallway and suddenly realized she couldn’t remember who the president was.
No, you’re not losing your mind, you just have Pandemic Brain. The good news is it won’t last forever, especially if you regularly practice good self-care. This is the only metaphor I can think of to describe the situation we’re in: we’ve all been abducted by aliens and put on a new planet that looks just like earth, only the social rules are completely different, we’re being sickened by something we don’t understand, and we’re 100 times frailer than we realized. The good news is, we are amazingly adaptable beings; we just need to care for ourselves and one another as we adapt. Oh, and it helps to remember that we’re not in this alone but are held in tender love by a benevolent force whose compassion is deeper than the ocean and wider than the sky; you know, the One many of us call, God.
Take good care of yourselves this day and the next, and the next, and the next….