Since lockdown began, an alarming decline in memory and cognitive function has become a common symptom reported to health professionals. Therapists have noticed that their clients have strayed from their usual topics of conversation and instead are complaining of chronic fatigue – a struggle to concentrate and recall memories that has only become more prolific the longer the UK has been under lockdown.
This phenomenon has been widely referred to as “lockdown fatigue” and is in part due to the constant stress of the pandemic taking its toll on everyone across the UK and the rest of the world, but what is it? Can we expect it to get better?
In a previous article featured on Private Practice Hub, we briefly touched on the topic of social prescription and how beneficial social prescription is to people struggling with their mental and physical health. Being occupied, social and engaged in activities delivers health improvement.
We know that lack of social contact can affect the brain negatively, most seriously in cases where a person already has poorer memory to begin with. A study published in The Journals of Gerontology shows that when social isolation increases in older people their memory declines particularly in men, where initially high levels of social isolation correlated with a greater decrease in memory. In extreme cases such as Alzheimer’s Disease, evidence has shown that loneliness is associated with an increased risk of late-life dementia.
It is no surprise then, that when in early 2020 the option to seek out these activities and interactions were taken away, there began a decline in mental health, frequently beginning with changes to memory and recall.
There is an acceptance that memory can be affected by age, however the lockdown effects on cognition is affecting people across all ages. So what else can we attribute to this struggle to recall the simplest details of our days?
Lack of Routine
Catherine Loveday, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Westminster seems to think that stimulation plays a greater part in our fatigue than you might think, she tells the BBC:
“Trying to remember what’s happened to you when there’s little distinction between the different days is like trying to play a piano when there are no black keys to help you find your way around.”
Loveday elaborates further in the Guardian on her thoughts to do with brain fog, stating that she was not surprised to see a change in memory and concentration over the duration of lockdown. She goes on to explain that this is because, in part, of the way humans have “effectively evolved to stop paying attention when nothing changes”, as our focus is always on what does change:
“When there is a new stimulus, a baby will turn its head towards it. And if as adults we are watching a boring lecture and someone walks into the room, it will stir our brain back into action.”
This sentiment is echoed by many mental health professionals such as Liz Ritchie, a psychotherapist at St Andrew’s Healthcare, who tells Yahoo that the “lack of markers” in people’s days makes it particularly hard for people to recall and differentiate between time that has passed over lockdown.
Hilda Burke, psychotherapist and author of ‘The Phone Addiction Workbook’ also agrees:
“Essentially, time slows down if we pay attention, because we tend to notice more and, of course, the more we notice things, the more we tend to remember them,” She tells Cosmopolitan, “With most of us spending almost all of our time homebound, we’re not being as stimulated by new sights, or experiences.”
In short, the more repetitive our days get, the harder it is for our brains to focus on not only what has happened when it comes to recalling memories, but also paying attention to what is happening right in front of us.
Trauma and Stress
The third and most obvious culprit of lockdown fatigue is the effect of the incredibly harsh and stressful changes made to daily life as lockdown began.
When lockdown started, levels of anxiety in the UK peaked and has gradually reduced as restrictions have loosened. In spite of this, the average anxiety level has remained higher than before Lockdown, especially in those living alone or in low income, or urban areas. It is needless to say that these circumstances are incredibly stressful and anxiety inducing.
Liz Ritchie from St. Andrew’s Healthcare, says a lack of ability to focus is completely normal in times of anxiety and high stress, especially since the changes were implemented at such a fast pace.
“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.”
The uncertainty that the pandemic has brought on people involving their income, when the next time they will see their loved ones will be, when they will be allowed to return to work or go to school, has been incredibly overwhelming.
Carmine Pariante, Professor of Biological Psychiatry at King’s College London, tells the Guardian that this brain fog that society appears to collectively suffer from is a sign that people should be trying to go easier on themselves where possible, rather than causing themselves more stress:
“It’s our body and our brain telling us that we’re pushing it too much at the moment. It’s definitely a signal – an alarm bell.”
What Can Be Done?
As practitioners you might be looking for some hope to give your clients, or even for yourself if you are suffering from the fatigue that has swept the nation.
The good news is that a study in Scotland which objectively measured participants’ cognitive function across a range of tasks at particular times during the first lockdown and into the summer showed that while people’s performance worsened when lockdown started, improvements were seen as restrictions began to lift. When we become more stimulated, brain fog will begin to dissipate.
Loveday suggests that to tackle this struggle, we should try to find or create some variation in our routines; instead of sitting at your desk to work each day, try taking a business phone-call while you’re on a walk where possible, or do something as simple as changing the layout of your workspace or the direction of your desk.
The London General Practice also has some words of wisdom available on their website, advising to implement some exercise into your daily routine to improve your mood and create some variety within your day, as well as a recommendation to get more sleep.
As restrictions lift once again this summer, it is important to try and keep spirits up and allow ourselves to get reacquainted with our old routines, hopefully waking up our brains and banishing the fog by creating some variety in our lives.
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Article written by Maisie Violet Wicks, BA Hons, columnist for Private Practice Hub. Have something to share? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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