Mental Health Experts Explain How Coronavirus Anxiety Can Lead To Brain Fog

A person lays on her couch, propped up with pillows, with her head in her hands. If you're experienc...
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Especially if you're not a morning person, you're probably accustomed to starting your day in at least a little bit of a haze (until the coffee kicks in). But if you're zoned out in your morning Zoom meeting, daydreaming in your afternoon Skype check-in, and restless even while you're trying to finish Season 1 of Cells at Work, social distancing is probably getting you down. Having brain fog all the time is a real effect of quarantine life.

"It is not an overstatement to say that our lives have all been turned upside down in response to COVID-19, and all of us are adjusting to this new 'normal,'" says Dr. Christine Celio, Ph.D., national director of mental health integration at One Medical, a membership-based primary care practice.

As you're transitioning to a radically different daily routine, Dr. Celio points out that you have to shift your focus much faster than usual, and to a much broader range of tasks. Suddenly, she says, you're tending to your boss' Slack message, your apartment's lack of toilet paper, the background anxiety about, well, everything, and your kid's homework all at the same time. "On top of this, many are also having trouble sleeping well due to heightened levels of anxiety and stress." That loss of sleep can disorient you and plummet your motivation and attention levels.

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Not being able to be as physically active as usual isn't helping your sense of brain fog, either. "Because we’re now even more sedentary than we typically are, the body responds with an increased sense of lethargy and fatigue — a heaviness that we carry around with us as we move from the bed to the couch to the chair and back again," says Dr. Paraskevi Noulas, Psy.D., psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. "Simultaneously, because we’re largely so unstimulated in comparison with our typical lifestyles, our minds are 'shutting down' in response to the lack of stimulus (less to do, see, hear, taste, touch)."

No matter how you've been impacted by the pandemic, its effects are reaching everyone, Dr. Noulas says. "That deep sense of change and uncertainty is highly disturbing to our psyche and at the simplest level it presents itself via increased anxiety, which often is displayed through difficulty focusing and sleeping."

Adjusting your expectations during this extreme time is actually a good thing, Dr. Celio says. It's OK if it takes you a lot longer to send those work emails than it would have a month ago — you're balancing more now than you were then, and Dr. Celio says it's healthy to let yourself take more time to complete seemingly simple tasks.

Figuring out how to shine a light through all the brain fog is possible, even when it seems like clear skies are lightyears away. "Now is the time to focus on our health like none other," Dr. Noulas tells Bustle. "Eat as healthy as you can with what you have access to. Stand up and take breaks to walk around, stretch, and step outside as often as possible. Carve out time to chat with friends and family however you can and block out time for yourself, be it a few minutes or hours. Take what you can get when you can get it." It's also totally OK to tune out the news, she says, so don't pressure yourself into knowing all the latest updates.

Dr. Celio tells Bustle that it's key to check in with yourself about what's working (and not working) for you. "How do you feel after scrolling on Instagram for an hour? How do you feel after running or doing a meditation? Recognize your own trends, and decide what makes sense for your own coping." Even if your brain fog hangs around longer than you'd like, Dr. Celio says that the most important thing to do is to be gentle with yourself as you navigate your new normal.


Dr. Christine Celio, Ph.D., national clinical director of mental health integration at One Medical

Dr. Paraskevi Noulas, Psy.D., psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health