You need coffee, but can’t remember where you put your cup. When you finally find it, it’s cold so you put it in the microwave to warm it back up… where you forget about it until you realize you need your coffee again. Feel familiar? If you’re feeling distracted and you can’t seem to shake it, it’s not just you, mama.
If you can’t focus, complete a thought, or if making decisions or even following directions and recipes seems overly difficult, this is your brain’s way of protecting you from even more stress that accompanies the situations you cannot control—but this is only temporary.
While your brain is trying to protect you from the overwhelming nature of the experience, it’s common to zone out, daydream, or have your mind go completely blank. The information overload that can happen during uncertain times as you try to handle a lot of new, important information at once—like updates—can cause you to feel a little dazed, unsure of what to do and unable to concentrate.
When stress has no endpoint in sight, like during a pandemic, it may be more challenging to cope, mentally and physically.
Chronic stress puts a strain on your nervous system by keeping your body in a continuous state of fight-or-flight in order to be prepared for what’s next. Your body reacts by secreting stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, into the bloodstream. That excess of hormones can hinder your brain’s memory functions and cognitive functioning by interfering with its capacity to encode memory, and delay its recall.
According to psychologist Dr. Alicia Clark, when stress hormones “are present for too long or in excessive quantities, they overwhelm and exhaust the brain,” making it even more difficult to manage the stress. This cycle can become progressively worse if left unchecked.
So, how can you help manage your stress level?
- Reframe how you label stress. Research shows that you can help to control how and what you feel by how you label the feeling. By framing your stress as a learning experience, for example, you can see it as a positive influence and motivator.
- Establish some control over your situation. If stress isn’t predictable, focus on controlling what is, like building structure into your day. “Having a routine is good for development and health,” says Dr. Kerry Ressler, professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
- Rest. Prioritizing sleep is one of the most important things you can do for a tired, overwhelmed brain that is foggy, easily distracted, or just “off.”
- Exercise. Physical exercise can potentially prevent or reduce elevations in stress hormones. Just 30 minutes a day of walking can help improve your mood and lower your stress.
- Take time to connect with others. If you feel supported during your stress, you are likely to weather it more successfully than if you don’t.
The good news is this state of mind is only temporary—and it’s reversible.
Research indicates the brain has a natural ability to recover from stress. “Generally speaking, the brain…has a substantial degree of plasticity, meaning that the brain is quite malleable,” says Stanford researcher, Sundari Chetty, PhD. This means that once whatever stressor you are experiencing is removed or diminished, your brain can bounce back, lifting the fog.
Bottom line: That ‘off’ feeling you’ve been having can be a reaction to the stressful environment. By adapting to difficult circumstances, you and your family can develop skills that could have a positive impact on the rest of your lives.
[Editor’s note: Stress is your response to an external threat, like a pandemic, and subsides once the situation has been resolved. Anxiety, on the other hand, is your specific reaction to stress, and it doesn’t fade once the threat has passed. Characterized by a feeling of apprehension or dread, anxiety is internal, triggered by stress, and can be present even in situations that are not actually threatening. If you are experiencing anxiety that interferes with your ability to function safely, contact your doctor.]