In years past, when I would forget where I had put something or wander into a room and then wonder why I was there, I would laugh it off. However, I have noticed that I now worry in these situations, seeing them as unpleasant signs of ageing and, perhaps, warnings of more serious cognitive difficulties ahead.
Never have these feelings been more intense than in the past few months. I put leftovers in the microwave to heat up for my lunch and then open the fridge door for my meal. Words hang in the air in front of my face close enough for me to grab, but I can’t manage to pull them out of my mouth to complete a sentence. I go upstairs to get something, then return to where I started with something else in my hands. As I stare into the freezer looking for – what? – I hear my father’s voice: “I’m not paying the electric bill to cool down the entire neighbourhood.” After I get into bed at night, I holler downstairs to my partner to check the stove because I am sure I have left a burner on.
I have always prided myself on my organizational and planning skills as well as my ability to set priorities. My habit is to end one workday with my workplan for the next set out in writing. I make meal plans for the week and write a shopping list to match the menus. (There are those in my family who find these traits annoying, but they are obviously wrong.)
A pandemic fog
However, over the past several months, I often feel as though I am operating in a bit of a mental fog. I have trouble making decisions about everything from whether to buy broccoli or cauliflower (cauliflower) to whether we should sell our house (no). I can’t decide whether it is more important to finish a piece of paid work or write a blog (blog). I waffle over decisions in a way I never have before. Often, I don’t even have any desire to cook. I am tired.
Most troubling, I’m losing my motivation. It’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed in the morning, and I have trouble not giving in to my desire to go back to bed by about 8 o’clock in the evening.
By late March, I was convinced my brain was melting, quickly, and decided I should begin to check out assisted living options. However, this may be premature: there is scientific evidence that the pandemic may be a big part of why I have been feeling as I have.
We’re all in this together
According to a national survey of Canadians conducted by Ipsos, more than half those surveyed were feeling increased stress or anxiety as a result of the pandemic.
University of Toronto professor of psychiatry Roger McIntyre describes the pandemic situation as one of “daily, unpredictable, malignant stress,” noting that the brain centres controlling thinking, pleasure, motivation and fear are significantly affected by the hormones and chemicals our bodies release in response to chronic, unpredictable stress.
McIntyre says our brains like predictability and the unpredictability of much associated with the pandemic – when we will be vaccinated, how long schools will be closed, when we will be able to travel, when it will all be over — wreaks havoc on that need for certainty.
McGill University psychiatry professor Natasha Rajah points out that our memories are stimulated by external cues. I remember that I need to go to the grocery store because It fits into my travel from work to home. I recall what happened on a particular day because it is different from what happened the day before or the day after. My memory of a past meal is prompted by remembering I had friends over for dinner.
Many of those cues are non-existent during the pandemic, because we are working from home and doing the same thing day after day. We have little variety in our interactions with others. As a result, our memories are less distinct and not as rich in detail. When one day flows boringly into the next with little to break one up from another, it is not surprising that our memories of what we did when are a little shaky. In fact, it is often hard to even remember what day of the week it is.
Where’s the hope?
Happily for those of us who like structure, experts like McIntyre and Rajah agree that the best way to help our brains cope is to bring as much of it into our day-to-day lives as we can. McIntyre calls it personal agency: we cannot control the pandemic, but we can control our own lives within it.
There’s no rocket science to their suggestions: get enough sleep, structure each day, get lots of exercise, eat healthily, find ways to engage socially.
All this was hopeful news to me. I’m sure my brain is starting to slow down a bit because I am getting older, but I don’t need to book space in a long-term care facility just yet. My brain, like everyone’s, is reacting to the abnormal, long-term and unpredictable stress of the pandemic.
And now I am off to create some structure in my day with a few lists.