If the past year has left you feeling distracted, overwhelmed and off the boil, you're certainly not alone. You may be suffering from what's colloquially being referred to as 'pandemic brain'.
To say the least, the past year has been stressful. It's common knowledge that prolonged exposure to stress and cortisol – the body’s primary stress hormone – can impact our sleep and make us more susceptible to heart disease and mood disorders like anxiety and depression.
But what's less well known is how prolonged exposure to cortisol affects cognition. Chronic stress has been found to kill brain cells, while a study by researchers at Yale University found that it can also shrink the size of the prefrontal cortex, or the part of your brain responsible for memory, focus and learning.
The good news is that having studied what the pandemic has been doing to our brains researchers believe it is possible to recover from pandemic brain, but after 18 months of social distancing, uncertainty and the "new normal", how long that process will take remains to be seen.
“It’s going to take us some time to recover from it,” says Mike Yassa, the director of the UC Irvine Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory and the UCI Brain Initiative, in an interview with The Guardian.
Yassa goes on to explain that the pandemic hasn’t merely been a single stressful event, we've been hit with stressors from all angles and disruptions in our physical activity, daily rhythms, and routines certainly haven't helped. “We didn’t get here overnight,” he adds.
So what should you do if you've felt the effect of pandemic brain? Try these tactics to help get your mental health back on track.
Work it Out
Exercise is known to increase the brain's neuroplasticity – its ability to adapt to experience and change. That helps guard against neurodegenerative conditions like dementia and should help the brain fire after a year of stressful events.
While we know that listening to calm music after a workout improves recovery times, music has also been shown to lower cortisol levels in the body, so use it to unwind after a particularly stressful day.
Get Om with It
Mindfulness and meditation can ease stress and enhance cognition. Perfect if the past year has felt like a bit of a whirlwind.
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