COVID Brain: Why Focusing Feels So Hard Right Now
[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]
Remember March? When the pandemic threw everyone into a holy panic and stores ran out of toilet paper and bread and produce and....everything? We all hunkered down for a few weeks, held some Zoom happy hours, baked some sourdough, twiddled our thumbs, tried to do work, got laid off from work, tried to study, failed to study, and thought that sooner or later, the quarantine would pass. At the same time, we watched news segments of China, where workers in hazmat suits sprayed the streets with disinfectant. We watched death number spike in Italy, then New York, then California. We held our collective breath and worried about what would happen when the extra unemployment benefits ran out in July. We watched a lot of Netflix, drank a lot of alcohol, and smoked a lot of weed. Eventually, folks started protesting the lock down measures. Businesses went under. Racial protests erupted. And now, the entire west coast is engulfed in wildfires, the East Coast is recovering from a hurricane, and the Midwest is recovering from a rare Derecho. 2020 has zero chill.
One super fun side effect of all this is that we're having a collective hard time focusing. Maybe you don't feel motivated to work, work out, or study. Maybe you can't concentrate on a difficult task for an extended period of time. Or maybe, you simply feel overwhelmed by everything. If you are, join the party.
There has been a 300% increase since February in people searching "how to get your brain to focus;" a 110% increase in "how to focus better;" and a 60% increase in "how to increase focus." The reason you may be having trouble focusing, even now, more than six months into COVID-19, is that your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain right behind your forehead that's responsible for critical thinking, inhibiting impulses, and focusing, is impaired when under stress. Stress chemicals strengthen the brain's primal survival systems while diminishing the ability to engage in higher thinking or extended problem solving. We enter a fight/flight/freeze response, the later of which is akin to mental paralysis.
Chronic stress is when your body is in a continuous state of fight-or-flight, which results in the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. These excess hormones can hinder your brain's memory functions and cognitive ability. According to psychologist Dr. Alicia Clark, when stress hormones "are present for too long or in excessive quantities, they overwhelm and exhaust the brain," making it even more difficult to manage stress. Given the cumulative events of 2020, we're likely all exhausted, over-stressed, and not motivated.
Cognitive psychologist and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman was among the first to propose that attention is a limited cognitive resource and that some cognitive processes require more attention than others. For example, tasks such as reading or writing academic papers require a larger degree of attention and mental energy than repetitive manual tasks. If this feels obvious, it kind of is. The kicker though, is that negative emotional stimuli (i.e. being under a lot of mental or emotional stress), interferes with our ability to perform difficult tasks to a greater degree than menial ones. It's harder to focus on reading or writing, and easier to scroll through social media, or do something relatively mindless, like doodle or knit.
More extensive research on focus and anxiety by psychologist Michael Eysenck found that people who are anxious tend to focus their attention on stimuli associated with the threat. So if you're an anxious person, COVID-19 has likely increased your anxiety and made it doubly hard for you to focus on anything. Both anxiety and worry eat up the attention and cognitive resources of working memory, resulting in decreased cognitive performance, especially for complex tasks. Other research indicates that feelings of mental fatigue increase when performing a task while trying not to respond to outside demands. Essentially, trying to focus and block out the worries brought on by COVID can leave us feeling unduly tired and mentally depleted.
Most of us are having a hard time right now, but what can we do about it??
Reframe stress. Research shows that we can control how we feel by how we label the feeling. Crazy right? If you go to the DMV, for example, and think about the experience as "stressful," you will more or less manifest stress. By framing your stress as a learning experience or a challenge, you can see it as a positive influence and motivator.
Establish some control over your situation. Stress is usually not predictable, so it helps to focus on what is, like building a routine or having a dedicated work space if you're working from home. Routine is good in normal circumstances, and crucial in the midst of a pandemic.
Rest. Prioritizing sleep is one of the most important things you can do for a tired, overwhelmed brain that is foggy, easily distracted, or just "off."
Exercise. Physical exercise can help prevent and/or reduce elevations in stress hormones. Just 30 minutes a day of walking can help improve your mood and lower your stress. The most difficult part of working out is often finding the motivation to work out.
Connect. If you feel supported during stressful times, you are more likely to not feel like shit, and not turn into a huge stinky pile of shit. Having a solid support network is incredibly important, so maintain friendships, keep in touch with family, and be there for your friends when they need a shoulder or two to lean on.
Like most things, stress isn't permanent. Research suggests that the brain has a natural ability to recover from stress. Our brains are quite malleable, and once a stressor subsides, our brains can bounce back. The gnarly thing about COVID is that nobody knows when or if or how it will subside, but we do know that this won't last forever. It simple can't. Hang in there friends.