I had the most interesting talk with my 30-year-old son Will last week. I was sharing how often my brain misfires these days. I mix up basic facts, I can’t find the right words while speaking, and I have forgotten more than once how to retrieve my cell phone voicemail. (I need to dial “1” first before my last 4 digits.)
“It’s no wonder” I told him “that there have been no published posts for a while because it has become very difficult to think of and follow-through on an idea.” As of late, my brain is emptier than our local movie theater.
“I know it’s because of the chemo” I explain to him “it is a pretty common side effect, but boy, it’s a roadblock. I’ve never been this well, vacant.”
“I understand” he replied “but also think about the massive lifestyle changes we’ve been forced into for so many months now. That’s had an impact on our brains too.”
I am fascinated by his response. “So, you’re suggesting that my brain misfiring and inability to hold a thought could be more fallout from the pandemic rather than chemo-related?”
“Well, I know everyone’s experienced levels of stress from being in quarantine and from fears of catching COVID. It’s what that stress can do to your brain. Here’s an example I’ve been discussing with my therapist” Will offered.
“A few months ago, I started having conversations with her about how I was getting fixated on things happening in our neighborhood. Working from home, I sit facing the windows in our second bedroom all day. I have a few narrow angles of the street that I can see; even if I am looking at the computer screen. So, I tend to notice most activity that’s going on outside.
“There have been days” he continued “when I haven’t been able to stop from being fixated on that activity, including a big move-in week with several moving trucks and people moving both in and out. It actually became exhausting at times because I could not stop my brain from caring about what was going on outside.”
“When I brought this topic up with her, we talked about how my brain is used to getting so much input during the day. I mean, seven months ago, I was walking to the train, seeing a ton of people and activity along the way. I was seeing more people while I was on the train, I was having in person meetings, seeing and talking to my work friends, etc. To go from that to nothing overnight is a dramatic shift and because my brain suddenly had less to go on it started to go nuts with what it did have. It’s called hypervigilance and since it is tied to anxiety, I think that the pandemic has exacerbated hypervigilant tendencies.
(After our conversation, Will sent me a full description of hypervigilance.)
Hypervigilance is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect activity. Hypervigilance may bring about a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion…In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of activity, threat or trauma…Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships. Source: Wikipedia
“And what I’m saying is that it may not be about hypervigilance for you, but a 6-month COVID world of no in-person family contact, no socializing, no restaurant dining or getting out anywhere fun may be triggering your own brain reactions such as the misfirings and forgetfulness. I think it has become easy to forget how weird the world is right now, how unusual our current way of living is, and the toll that it has taken on us” he concluded.
This is such a breakthrough new thought for me. I think I’ve been using “chemo brain” as a shield. I never considered that stress from quarantine and the “new normal” way of life would contribute to my brain literally shutting-down.
We say goodbye and I immediately start to research this concept. Google lit up. Pandemic “brain fog.” It’s a thing. There are articles and blog posts everywhere on the topic.
Got Brain Fog Lately? Blame it on the Corona Pandemic
“Chronic stress leaves the brain swimming in the hormone cortisol, which research suggests can disrupt the functions of the prefontal cortex ― the area of the brain responsible for attention span, decision-making, problem-solving and emotion regulation. Cue brain fog, apathy, indecisiveness and mood swings.” Huffington Post May 21 2020
Mental Health Experts Explain How Coronavirus Anxiety Can Lead To Brain Fog
“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).”Bustle.com April 22 2020
If You Can’t Get Anything Done Right Now, Brain Fog Might Be to Blame
“Brain fog is the inability to think clearly,” Juli Fraga, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist based in San Francisco, tells SELF. “We might have difficulty forming new thoughts or expressing what we’re thinking and feeling.”
Basically, the feeling of brain fog is exactly what it sounds like, Emily Green, Psy.D., a psychologist based in Washington D.C., tells SELF. Rather than feeling clearheaded, you may feel foggy or clouded, almost like a frosted window that is difficult to see through… and since everyday activities like work, hobbies, and staying connected with our loved ones all require concentration, focus, and decision-making, brain fog can be a huge problem.
While “brain fog” is not considered a clinical term, it’s a useful way of describing the cognitive impact of depression, anxiety, stress, and other psychological issues, Green says.“Self.com May 20
I can’t escape the irony that learning about brain fog is what stimulated me to finally be able to write about something. I am thankful to Will for jumpstarting that. There is truth here.
Theoretically, I understood that the pandemic has created high stress on a global scale. I also recognized the stress in my own life as I just finished cancer treatment and catching the virus would complicate my recovery. But that’s where it ended. I kept myself informed on COVID developments and I took the practical steps needed to protect myself. Then I mentally moved on.
What I failed to realize is that the continual, underlying beat of stress vibrated internally, eventually taking its mental toll. For me, it exhibited as brain fog. Chemo brain probably hasn’t helped.
Unfortunately, the articles I found contain no permanent panacea. I don’t really have a next step to clearing out the fog except to wait it out.
Actually, that is not entirely true. I did find one piece which suggests a temporary fix: try to laugh. It becomes a physical release from stress and it also places a distance between you and the thing creating the stress.
So, here’s my own visual description of brain fog. I feel like Baby Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy 2. One button will save his friends. The other will detonate a bomb. There’s a lot on the line, and I still can’t retain which button is which.
To bust-up stress in my limited life, I also try to walk and bike with my husband and I’ve zoomed a lot with family and friends. For a change of pace, I do visit a store occasionally with my mask strapped on tight and hand sanitizer in my pocket. I tend to do it in off-hours though. I read. I write…sometimes. I’ve been lucky to have a handful of socially distant happy hours with close neighbors.
Looking back over the last six months, I feel like it’s a retelling of the story David and Goliath. For so many “small” vulnerable people, there are days where the challenge is an uphill battle. Goliath always seems to have the upper hand. But even with the brain fog, I do remember who wins in the end.
Have you experienced symptoms of hypervigilance or brain fog or something else? What do you do to stay mentally healthy during the pandemic?
Photo credit: creakyjoints.org