Reckoning with lingering sluggishness from ‘pandemic brain’

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Credit: Clara Hendler/Getty Images
Credit: Clara Hendler/Getty Images

Beginning in the spring of last year, with the first lockdown, I’d often get distracted and overwhelmed, then lose the plot of my task – a common Covid-era affliction… But now I was fully vaccinated, making plans, and even socializing indoors again. Life was starting to appear almost, well, normal. I felt good. Why had my brain missed the memo – and could I get my trusty pre-pandemic brain back?

It is now common knowledge that stress can be hazardous to our physical health, especially when experienced over a protracted period of time. Prolonged exposure to cortisol, the body’s primary stress hormone, increases the risk of heart disease, sleep disruptions and even mood disorders like anxiety and depression. Cognition suffers, too. Chronic stress has been found to kill brain cells and even shrink the size of your prefrontal cortex.

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[Clinical neuropsychologist Barbara] Sahakian has examined categories of people ranging from medical workers to those who never had Covid but were in lockdown. Across groups, people reported difficulty with concentration and memory. Many also reported symptoms of depression.

“People do have resilience,” she says. “But there will be a portion of people who have been greatly affected, who may continue to show those [cognitive changes] into the future.”

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