Everyone feels a bit unfocussed sometimes - and it's generally sorted out by a good night's sleep or a few days off work. But if that 'hazy' feeling persists, it could be a case of brain fog; typified by an inability to concentrate, a feeling of overwhelm triggered by even small challenges - like what to buy for dinner - and heightened anxiety and worry.
Audley Retirement Villages has launched a study into how the pandemic pressures and changes in routine have impacted on brain health.
"When you are unfocussed and constantly thinking and worrying, it can leave the brain feeling foggy and unfocussed, making it hard to concentrate," says Neuro-linguistic programming coach Rebecca Lockwood.
“It’s important for your emotional and mental wellbeing to consistently look after your mental health," she adds. "Brain fog can leave you feeling you're unable to concentrate for long enough to do anything productive - making the smallest of decisions is hard."
After almost 18 months of COVID stress impacting our lives in so many negative ways, it's hardly surprising that many of us feel the old coping strategies that once worked, from a glass of wine to a run round the park, are no longer enough to clear our befuddled brains. So what can we do to part the mental mists and improve our moods, as life gradually edges towards something more familiar?
Here's 4 tips on reducing brain fog, and how to make them work for you.
1 Take regular breaks
Pushing yourself, at work or in family life, is not the answer - many of us were raised to believe that stoicism and 'just getting on with things' are the solution to problems, but over-stretching yourself at such a difficult time can push you into genuine exhaustion, or even depression.
"Take regular breaks and don't attempt to push yourself too far," says Lockwood. "Have no expectations of yourself and what you should be doing and allow yourself to honour the feelings you have.”
Easy to say if you don't have deadlines, children and caring responsibilities - but it may help to create a chart or spreadsheet, detailing exactly what you have to do and when - and give yourself permission to say 'no' to anything voluntary, such as 'quick favours' that will take half a day, working to cover someone else's holiday, or prioritising politeness over your own feelings. Tough to do - but right now, essential.
Read more An expert's advice on beating brain fog
2 Take time away from digital screens
Screen time is both blessing and curse - but during the pandemic, for many, it's become relentless, with Zoom, Google Teams and FaceTime taking the place of real-life meetings, and social media standing in for social contact. We're also working longer hours, due to less commuting and more pressure.
"Staring at screens for hours can cause you to go into 'foveal vision'" says Lockwood.
"This is when you are only focussed on the thing right in front of you, and it can heighten stress levels and cause you to feel less motivated to do much else.”
This doesn't mean throwing your laptop aside and ignoring frantic work emails. But it does mean looking up, standing up, walking, stretching, and noticing the rest of the world.
Set a bird table outside your window, or take five minutes to close your eyes and meditate instead of scrolling through social media.
"The opposite of foveal is peripheral vision," says Lockwood. "That's when we are able to focus on all of the things around us - which leaves us feeling calmer and more grounded.”
Watch: Average parent loses this many hours to 'brain fog' while raising their child
3 Sleep, drink, eat (properly)
Adjusting certain lifestyle factors can have a big impact on brain fog. If you're not getting over seven hours of sleep every night, and drinking at least a litre of water a day, that's likely to affect your brain health.
Most of us are permanently slightly dehydrated, and insomnia levels during COVID have been higher than ever - while diets have crumbled in the face of unprecedented stress, meaning a lot of us aren't getting the right nutrients to keep our brains ticking along effectively.
Nutritionist Ellie Busby suggests, "log all your food and supplements for a few days using a nutrient tracker such as MyFitnessPal or Cronometer. Make sure you're supplementing B12 and iodine every day if you're vegan or vegetarian, and getting enough iron if your ferritin levels are low.”
Blood tests can help to determine what you might be lacking - but you can't go wrong in upping your fruit and veg intake, drinking less booze and more water, and aiming to go to bed at the same time every night.
4 Ramp up the relaxation
It's easy to take a day off then watch it drift away as you do little chores, tend to admin and give the kids lifts... but to clear the fog, you need to focus entirely on letting go of your stresses and strains.
If a day at a luxury spa is out of the question, turn to nature - walking in green spaces has been proven to ease stress and improve mental health.
A study from the University of Wisconsin found a direct link between relaxation and spending time in nature, while activities such as wild swimming and 'forest bathing' are becoming increasingly popular.
Even a stroll round the park will help. Other ideas include yoga, arts and crafts, reading an escapist novel or simply chatting with a friend in the garden.
"It's worth considering your environment and whether you need to remove yourself from digital devices and enclosed spaces," agrees psychologist Lee Chambers.
"Natural environments are often grounding, and natural light and ventilation can help us to reduce our stress response."
For more information on how the pandemic has affected brain health: audleyvillages.co.uk/retirement-villages/brain-health
Watch: Stanford researchers may have answers to treat COVID 'brain fog'