Stress and anxiety wear down your brain. Here’s how to fight back.
Forgetful? Distracted? The world is on fire—it’s normal.
Perhaps you find yourself caught in an endless scroll on social media, or closing apps just to immediately reopen them. Perhaps you pick up a book only to put it back down shortly after because none of the words are registering. Perhaps you have so much on your plate that your mind keeps jumping from thought to thought without actually finishing any of them.
If any of that resonates, you’re not alone. The ongoing, prolonged pandemic has unbalanced our health and wellbeing in every sense, including our ability to focus and pay attention. The good news is that this damage is (for the most part) reversible.
Why you can’t concentrate
There are a lot of things that could possibly be squashing your focus and attention, but ruling out any previous medical conditions, we can likely boil it down to two main offenders.
Stress and anxiety are among the most well-understood factors influencing memory. When we experience immense or chronic stress, it’s normal for our brains to stay in survival mode, says Carmen Sandi, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. It’s an evolutionary adaptation where as soon as our nervous system senses danger, it prioritizes the areas of the brain in charge of keeping us alive, to detriment of other processes, such as critical thinking. Also a result of going into “survival mode” is our instinct to dart our attention around, as we must be hyper-aware of incoming threats.
But that doesn’t mean that any amount of stress is bad—“to perform well, to learn and to be efficient, a bit of stress is quite good,” says Sandi. Small doses of stress put your nervous system slightly on alert, heightening your focus and attention. But it works in an inverted “U” shape—once stress levels pass a certain threshold, the effect reverses and your nervous system starts to only pay attention to basic survival needs rather than complicated thought processes. Anything that causes you acute or chronic stress and anxiety—like being a parent, or suffering from a physical or mental health condition—can worsen your ability to remember things or pay close attention to the world around you.
People with long-COVID often have difficulty concentrating. What’s worrying is that not every source of stress is controllable on an individual level. The pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and other economic stressors all pile on top of the persisting pressures of everyday life. This makes bouncing back and recovering our mental functions a difficult task, but there are small things we can do to get there.
How to fight pandemic brain fog
We can’t get rid of the extra stress in our current lives without systemic, external changes in the world. But there are little boons that can help you cope with a waning attention span or working memory, and exercises that can get you closer to your original capabilities.
An important first step is noticing any changes in yourself, says Shishir Baliyan, a doctoral student in psychobiology at the Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia in Spain who studies stress and empathy. But being aware of your own stress levels is harder than you might think.
“The amount of stress that you feel, and the amount of stress that your body is going through are two different things,” says Baliyan. One is physiological stress, which is the mix of stress hormones and other sensory input occurring in your body, he explains. The other is psychological stress, which is the perception you have of how well you’re doing. The problem is that they rarely match up perfectly.
Take stock of your condition by stopping and asking yourself some questions: Is your memory worsening, and if so, how quickly? Did the onset of this decline coincide with stressors in your life? Being mindful of your own condition is important, Baliyan adds—you can’t fix a problem you’re not aware of.
Memory is something that you can, actually, improve, but it’s important to know that it may take time. If they don’t see results fast enough, says Sandi, some people may start feeling a lack of control or a sense of failure, which can be problematic if it turns into a cycle. When that happens, the feeling of hopelessness adds more stress and worsens the problem.
“Memory and working memory require practice,” she says. “One can train them.”
For example, research shows that mindfulness exercises like meditation can theoretically help attentional control, though there is not enough data to definitively say whether these practices directly improve attention span. There is mixed evidence on the effectiveness of games and exercises designed to improve working memory and attention, generally, the consensus is that our memory and attention spans are not fixed—they can be improved through discipline.
Training your attention and memory has other benefits, too. In one study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, psychologists found that those with greater attentional control developed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety during the onset of the pandemic.
Finding ways to live with a shorter working memory and attention span is just as important as working towards improvement. Rather than beating yourself up for forgetting things, go easy on yourself and find workarounds. Strategies like writing notes to yourself, setting up more frequent reminders, and practicing different approaches, like the Pomodoro technique, can help you stay on top of things without straining your brain.
Seek help and community
A crucial and often overlooked component of mental health is communal support, says Baliyan.
“Loneliness is also directly related to wellbeing, and people who have more social connections and maintain their social support are more likely to maintain their cognitive functioning,” he adds. The effects of loneliness are so stark that it can even help predict the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
[Related: Stress can literally kill you. Here’s how.]
Feeling good can sometimes mean thinking well: “emotional and cognitive processes, they go hand in hand,” Baliyan says. If you’re feeling emotionally bogged down, that may be a sign you’re also not in the best cognitive state, and vice versa.
Friends, family, and community can help by taking things off your plate—perhaps by taking your kids for a day, or cooking a meal when you don’t have the time. They can also provide emotional support for the stresses you are currently experiencing, and preemptively build up your sense of resilience in anticipation of future stresses.
Improving your attention span and working memory is a journey with no guaranteed results, especially if stressors in your life do not change. But take comfort in the knowledge that your attention span and memory are plastic. Just as you may have seen them shorten and decline, it is possible to build them back up again with discipline and patience. They are not fixed in stone.