A cartoon image of a woman in business attire walking but slouched. There is a black cloud above her tied to her waist, symbolising brain fog.
Image: © Knut/Stock.adobe.com

How to deal with pandemic-level brain fog

12 Nov 2021

We’ve all suffered from a bit of brain fog at work, but the last 18 months may have taken it to the next level. Here are some tips to help you manage it.

We’ve talked about brain fog before. It’s when your brain feels like cotton wool and you can’t seem to focus on anything. For me, it means a lot of procrastinating, but even that is hard to focus on.

I find myself picking up my phone and immediately putting it back down, constantly breaking my concentration, but not fully committing to taking a break either.

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I shared some tips a few years ago that might help clear the cobwebs at work and, while they might still help, they weren’t written while the world was going through a pandemic and a mass shift to remote working.

In the early months of the pandemic, I talked to resilience coach Siobhán Murray, who spoke about the effects the pandemic can have on our productivity levels, with the helpful analogy of spotting a family of brown bears in your garden.

After the initial panic and crisis mode you might be in, things settle down and you need to go back to focusing on work and other things, but the effect of having bears in your garden is still there.

“As each week goes on, you look out and say, ‘Oh, there are the brown bears again,’ and you get used to them. But you still know that you can’t go outside because they’re still dangerous. So, there are times where you’re in the middle of doing something and your mind wanders off to the brown bears, wondering when they’re going to leave.”

This idea has stayed with me over the last 18 months because it tints everything we’re currently doing. No matter how normal everything might have become, the metaphorical brown bears are still there, which means if you feel like your brain is especially foggy or your focus is waning more than ever, it’s important to remember that this is not normal brain fog, it’s brain fog during a pandemic.

So here are some tips that could help you manage.

Re-evaluate your downtime

Take some time to explore what makes you feel good and energised but also relaxed and switched off from work. My biggest pitfall when it comes to procrastination, or even when I have spare time, is to fall down a rabbit hole on YouTube.

Sometimes, it could be just what I need, but more often than not, an hour of reading, a walk or a bit of yoga will help me reset much more effectively. Really think about the activities you like to do and make sure you’re dedicating time to those activities.

Use remote working to your advantage

One of the benefits of remote working is having the time and space to use our breaks differently, whether that means having a short nap on our own bed, playing with the kids or just getting to watch our favourite TV show.

Use this to your advantage to really feed into the creature comforts that make our brain feel truly rested. I often feel that when I’m actively trying to clear brain fog, it never works, but when I just let my mind relax, it usually clears on its own.

Change up your routine

An article in The Atlantic earlier this year specifically dived into how ‘late-stage pandemic’ in particular is messing with our brains, with insights from several neuroscientists. Mike Yassa said: “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty.”

Tina Franklin echoed this sentiment: “What’s very clear in the literature is that environmental enrichment – being outside of your home, bumping into people, commuting, all of these changes that we are collectively being deprived of – is very associated with synaptic plasticity,” which is the brain’s ability to generate new connections and learn new things.

With all this in mind, it’s important to change up your routine regularly in order to keep your brain in good health. Even if you’re not going back to all the things you did pre-pandemic just yet, make sure you’re introducing variety, making different social connections and switching up how you spend your downtime to give your brain the novelty it needs.

Listen to your brain

While brain fog is something most of us have experienced, and probably more in the last 18 months than ever, it’s important to not simply disregard it as a lack of focus.

The above tips, along with the age-old advice such as going for walks, taking regular breaks and staying hydrated, can help bring your mind back to the present. But you should also think about what your brain is trying to tell you.

If you’re dealing with consistent brain fog and a complete lack of focus on a regular basis, you might be suffering from the early signs of burnout and a simple walk or a bit of TV on your lunch break isn’t going to fix that. Burnout needs to be addressed with proper time off and a real break for your mental health.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the deputy editor of Silicon Republic in 2020, having worked as the careers editor until June 2019. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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