A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Mar 6, 2021

How Pandemic Stress and Multitasking Affect the Brain

Too much to do amid too much uncertainty amid unfamiliar routines can chemically and physiologically affect on the brain. JL

Jessica Grose reports in the New York Times:

Many aspects of our pandemic lives could lead to impaired executive functioning, which is a fancy way of describing the mental processes that allow us to plan, organize and remember instructions. Life has changed from being divided in well-defined areas of work, kids, activities, to a situation where everything is a mix,” and that muddling puts a strain on our cognitive abilities.“Managing too many details can definitely make you feel ‘foggy,’ and make you feel like your memory has declined.”(And) Chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol, associated with stress, can lead to memory impairments in healthy adults

I don’t know how else to put it, but lately it seems like my brain is broken. I’m not functioning with the mental quickness I’m used to. I find myself struggling to locate words I want to use, like “vigilant” (it took me a full day to remember it). Sometimes when I’m especially tired in the evenings, I will trail off midsentence, and when my husband asks a follow-up question I will have completely lost my train of thought — it drives him bonkers.

I’m not the only one feeling fuzzy in this way. Anecdotally, I have heard from many parents that the multitasking, stressors and lack of sleep brought on by this Covid year have created a kind of mental overload. And it’s not just parents, either. As a sketch on “Saturday Night Live” that could serve as our pandemic anthem expressed it, “I was fine in the fall but now I’ve hit a wall and I’m loco, as in my brain done broke-o.”

It turns out that many aspects of our pandemic lives could lead to impaired executive functioning, which is a fancy way of describing the mental processes that allow us to plan, organize and remember instructions. “A lot of things need to function well for our memory to work ideally,” said Marie Eckerström, a neuropsychologist at the Sahlgrenska Memory Clinic in Gothenburg, Sweden, who studies cognitive impairment.

“Managing too many details can definitely make you feel ‘foggy,’ and make you feel like your memory has declined,” she said. For example, the fact that I have to organize some of my children’s video calls along with my own schedule can lead to overload, and is why my older daughter’s guitar teachers probably think my husband and I are incompetent because we only remember to log on for 50 percent of her lessons.

“For many of us, life has changed from being divided in well-defined areas of work, kids, activities, to a situation where everything is a mix,” Dr. Eckerström said, and that muddling puts a strain on our cognitive abilities.

It’s not just the multitasking that makes us feel muddled, though. It’s also the stress. Chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol, which is associated with stress, can lead to memory impairments in healthy adults, said Moïra Mikolajczak, a psychology professor at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who studies parental burnout.

Parental burnout is a distinct psychological phenomenon that’s beyond regular stress and exhaustion — to get that diagnosis you need to feel so exhausted by your parental role that you cannot function, you need to feel disconnected emotionally from your children, and this needs to be a marked change in behavior for you. Though she hasn’t seen studies on it specifically, Dr. Mikolajczak said that she thinks it’s “likely that parental burnout causes memory impairments.” Work-related burnout has been associated with memory problems.

Considering that the Covid-related strains on our lives aren’t going away in the near-term, what can we do to feel less scattered? With the caveat that not all of these options are feasible for parents, Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University, said that we should be assessing all of our responsibilities, and seeing if there is anything at all we can take off our plates. “A lot is being demanded of us,” she said — and it’s not sustainable.

Dr. Burnett-Zeigler also recommended we try to avoid multitasking as much as possible: Keep one window open at a time on your computer, and resist the urge to toggle between work and signing your kid up for camp at the same time. “Attending to one thing for each moment can help to improve your ability to store information,” she said.

Finally, going outside, or even simulating the outdoors, may help when you’re feeling mentally dull. Studies have shown that spending time in nature, and even looking at pictures of nature, can improve cognitive functioning. Though it may be difficult to find the time, a 50-minute outdoor walk has been shown to improve memory and decrease anxiety, no matter what the weather is (though you will probably enjoy it a lot less if it’s 25 degrees out).

In the interest of feeling less broken, my husband and I have started delegating guitar to our 8-year-old. We printed out the schedule and all the Zoom passwords and pinned them up on the bulletin board in her room; she actually likes the additional independence and responsibility. It’s one small step toward … wait, what was I saying again?

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