Late-Stage Pandemic Life Can Mess With Your Brain

By: Ellen Cushing, The Atlantic

I first became aware that I was losing my mind in late December. It was a Friday night, the start of my 40-somethingth pandemic weekend: Hours and hours with no work to distract me, and outside temperatures prohibitive of anything other than staying in.

Jen George,
a community-college teacher, told me she is losing her train of thought in the middle of a sentence more and more often. Inny Ekeolu, a 19-year-old student, says she has found herself forgetting how to do things she used to do on a regular basis: swiping her bus pass, paying for groceries. Rachel Kowert, a research psychologist, used to have a standing Friday-night dinner with her neighbors — and went completely blank when one of them recently mentioned it. “It was really shocking,” Kowert told me. “This was something I really loved, and had done for a long time, and I had totally forgotten.”

This is the fog of late pandemic, and it is brutal.

To some degree, this is a natural adaptation. “Our brains are very good at learning different things and forgetting the things that are not a priority,” Tina Franklin, a neuroscientist, told me.” As the pandemic has taught us new habits and made old ones obsolete, our brains have essentially put actions like taking the bus and going to restaurants in deep storage, and placed social distancing and coughing into our elbows near the front of the closet. When our habits change back, presumably so will our recall.”

“We’re all walking around with some mild cognitive impairment,” agrees Mike Yassa, a neuroscientist. “Based on everything we know about the brain, two of the things that are really good for it are physical activity and novelty. A thing that’s very bad for it is chronic and perpetual stress.” That stress doesn’t necessarily feel like a panic attack or a bender or a sleepless night — sometimes it feels like nothing at all. “It’s like a heaviness, like you’re waking up to more of the same, and it’s never going to change,” Ms. George told me when I asked what her pandemic anxiety felt like. “Like wading through something thicker than water. Maybe a tar pit.” She misses the sound of voices.

Prolonged boredom is stressful, Franklin said; our brains hate it. The share of Americans reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder, depressive disorder, or both roughly quadrupled from June 2019 to December 2020, according to a Census Bureau study released late last year. Studies of survivors of Chernobyl, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina show elevated rates of mental-health problems, in some cases lasting for more than a decade.

“What did I used to do on weekends?” I asked my boyfriend, like a soap-opera amnesiac. But not too long from now, I won’t have to wonder about what I do on weekends, because I’ll be doing it. I’ll marvel at how everyone is still the same, but a little different, after the year we all had. I can’t wait.

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