Covid-19 turned the world upside down two long years ago, and the omicron variant is giving us something new to worry about in the coming year. Meanwhile, the pandemic is still prompting people to withdraw from social activities, and many continue to work from home, with weekdays blurring into weekends, month after month.
With all this stress, social isolation and disruption, it’s no wonder if you’ve been feeling the effects, even being more forgetful or absent-minded. Maybe you’ve found yourself unable to remember a common term, what day it is or why you walked into a room. Experts say prolonged stress can affect people’s everyday memory and cognitive skills.
“If we’re under a lot of stress, sometimes it can very negatively impact retrieval of information,” said Daniel Schacter, a professor of psychology and director of the Schacter Memory Lab at Harvard University. He's also the author of “The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers.”
One effect is “blocking,” in which information is available in memory but we can’t retrieve it when we want to, Schacter said.
“The tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon we all are familiar with would be an example of blocking,” he said. “There’s good research to show that people, if you put them in a stressful situation, will have more retrieval blocking and tip-of-the-tongue experiences.”
Another effect is absent-mindedness, he said, which is “when there’s kind of a breakdown at the interface of attention and memory, and we forget to do things because we’re not really focused.” That could potentially happen if someone is worrying a lot about Covid, he said.
Not everyone will experience these effects, Schacter noted. It can depend on how much people are feeling pandemic stress: “If Covid is taking up a lot of cognitive space, if you’re thinking or worrying about it a lot,” he said. “And it may vary, for example, when we hear about a new variant like omicron. That might ratchet up the stress and distraction a little bit.”
Stress combined with fatigue, boredom and isolation are very countering to our growth and cognitive development.
Psychotherapist Ani Kalayjian
Just as people are affected differently by stress, individuals also vary in how they cope, said psychologist Alison Holman, a stress researcher and professor at the University of California, Irvine.
“We should never think that you can throw all human beings into one bucket and say that’s how they’re going to cope, because there is no such thing as a single way for everybody to cope,” she said.
Thankfully, experts say, there are various strategies people can try to help reduce pandemic stress and sharpen memory skills, including the following.
Socialize, even at a distance
People are social creatures, and all that social distancing can take a toll on our mental health and memory function, said Ani Kalayjian, a psychotherapist in Cliffside Park, New Jersey.
“Stress combined with fatigue, boredom and isolation are very countering to our growth and cognitive development,” she said.
If you’re not having friends over or chatting with colleagues at the water cooler, you still need to make an effort to have human interaction, she emphasized. That simply could mean talking on the phone with family members or taking walks with friends outdoors.
Nature walks can be particularly helpful, Kalayjian said.
“Being in nature with the sun, and if there’s no sun, just the fresh air is very healing,” she said. “And you’re getting your exercise, which helps to relax the nervous system. That anxiety melts away when you’re exerting yourself physically.”
Enjoy your weekends
If you’re working from home, those weekdays easily can blend into the weekends, creating a big blur.
“A lot of my clients talk about ‘Groundhog Day,’ that every day is the same, like they have to look and put a circle on their calendar to know which day it is because it’s just so repetitive,” Kalayjian said.
Try to break that routine by making an effort to mix things up, she said.
“Make sure you do things differently on weekends, especially if your weekdays are monotonous because you’re on Zoom all day,” she said. “Break that monotony.”
Set yourself up for success
“I think a lot of absent-mindedness can be countered by trying to structure your environment,” Schacter said. “So, for example, common absent-minded forgetting would be not remembering where you put your keys or glasses. And one way of trying to structure the environment to overcome that would be to define a particular place where you always put those objects.”
If you’re having trouble remembering appointments or other actions that you need to carry out at set times, put convenient reminders in your phone, Schacter advised.
Write a to-do list
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted from pandemic life, you may find it hard to focus well or target your attention on one particular thing, said psychologist Lily Brown, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety.
“That’s because typically those activities require a ton of brainpower,” she said. “And I think if your reserves are depleted, you’re just not going to have it.”
One way to deal with feeling overwhelmed by everything you have to do is to write it all down in a list, Brown said.
“So if I find myself sitting at my computer drifting out the window and it’s really hard to get focused right now, let me look at my list and just do the next thing on the list as opposed to having to make tons of decisions,” she said. “Right now a lot of people are feeling like they’re just overflowing with decisions that have to be made.”
“Fear can impact our memory,” Kalayjian said. “A lot of fear closes us off and doesn’t help us remember things.”
To counter fear and negative thoughts, she recommended meditation.
“Meditation brings us positive ideas, positive energy and a peaceful mind,” she said. “It calms worries and fears.”
“The pandemic has totally messed with our sense of time,” Holman said. That can cause people to lose track of the day or time of day.
“If you’re in a really stressful situation, the first thing you’re going to do is try to figure out 'What do I do to deal with this immediate situation in my present moment?' So you’re very present-oriented,” she said.
But normally people also look to the future: We make plans for later in the day, the weekend or summer vacation, and doing so can bring us joy. If you’ve just been living in the moment, it’s important to start looking ahead again, Holman said.
“Even if it means setting very small future goals and working toward them, I think that’s a very important part of bringing back a sense of normalcy,” she said.