Feeling Scatterbrained? Here’s Why

Stress, like a pandemic, puts our brains into “fight or flight” mode, disrupting attention, memory, breathing and sleep. But experts say it’s all very normal.

Credit…Eleni Kalorkoti

— Mignon Fogarty, author and podcast host

[In Her Words is available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.]

Mignon Fogarty was a few weeks into quarantine when she got into the shower with her glasses on. The author and host of the podcast “Grammar Girl” shared the experience on Twitter, where dozens of people replied with their own stress-induced scatterbrained moments: forgetting their own phone numbers, washing faces with hair conditioner, spooning powdered baby formula into the coffee maker instead of coffee.

“I’ve become noticeably forgetful, and I’m not sleeping well,” Fogarty said of life in self-isolation from her home in Reno, Nev. “In last night’s dream, I was responsible for taking care of a child who kept touching dirty things in public and rubbing his hands on my face while I sat there thinking about how our whole family was going to die.”

Fogarty is hardly alone. As the coronavirus crisis spreads across the U.S., many states and cities have ordered residents to self-isolate in order to slow the virus. As a result, millions of people now find themselves cut off from their normal routines and support networks — while also home schooling children, managing households in lockdown, caring for loved ones and grappling with serious fears about the health and safety of their community. Stress is high, and healthy outlets for it are few. It’s a situation that seems practically made to undermine mental health.

“We are having to process a lot more than we normally do, all at once,” said Lisa Olivera, a marriage and family therapist based in Berkeley, Calif. “What we are experiencing could be considered a collective trauma, as it is impacting the entire world in ways that are at best disruptive and, at worst, deadly.”

Goofs like getting into the shower with glasses on happen when multiple stressors rupture the normal mechanisms of attention and memory formation. And that feeling when your chest is tight and you’re certain you’re experiencing the early stages of Covid-19 — that’s stress, too, said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles.

When we feel threatened, we’ll often unconsciously start to breathe more shallowly in order to flood the blood with oxygen, Maidenberg said. The change in our breathing doesn’t get our attention, but the resulting tightness in the chest and dizziness does.

Chronic stress can also cause fatigue, problems concentrating, irritability and changes in sleep and appetite, said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, an associate professor of psychiatry at Northwestern University.

For women, who even before this crisis reported stress and anxiety at twice the rate of men, the effects can be even more pronounced. Women are more likely to bear additional schooling and child care responsibilities at home during closures, and to work in essential caregiving jobs that place them at higher risk of contracting the virus.

Stress and anxiety are distinct but related conditions with many overlapping symptoms. Chronic stress is typically tied to a specific situation — a pandemic, for example — and the symptoms go away when the stressor does. It can exacerbate existing anxiety disorders, and eventually cause new ones. By contrast, clinical anxiety is a persistent condition lasting at least six months, and is not necessarily linked to a specific concern.

On the upside (if there’s one to find in all this), feeling stressed right now is a sign that your brain is working properly.

“One thing the human brain is incredibly good at is finding stuff to worry about, and when it does, it activates the ‘fight or flight’ threat response systems that have been part of our physiology for millions of years,” said Dean Burnett, a U.K.-based neuroscientist and author of “Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To.” (For a deeper dive into the psychology of self-isolation, check out his YouTube series “This Is Your Brain on Lockdown.”)

“Being stressed because there’s a pandemic and lockdown that’s completely upended your normal way of life is a very logical and possibly useful reaction,” Burnett said. “The extra vigilance and awareness that comes from the fight or flight response is relevant here, as we try to get through this and keep ourselves safe.”

But when that fight or flight response is continually activated by ongoing threats we can’t control, it can lead to mental and physical symptoms that make it a lot harder to get through the day.

To cope with the continuing uncertainty of this particular crisis, experts say, all the typical self-care recommendations apply: sleep, exercise, limits on alcohol, connecting (virtually) with friends and loved ones. Meditation or other mindfulness practices have all been shown to decrease the symptoms associated with stress and anxiety.

But if the mere idea of finding time for these things while drowning in work and child care feels absurd, it might help to think of it as necessary maintenance, like taking a vital daily medication or putting gas in a car.

“Consistency is the most important thing. Five minutes every day is a lot better than 30 minutes every week,” Pooja Lakshmin, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, explained to the New York Times parenting editor Jessica Grose.

There are also significant psychological benefits to reframing the way you think about the things you’re already doing. “A lot of the pieces of this are out of our control, and that’s very unsettling,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “But there are some factors that are in our control: staying in, wearing a mask, social distancing, taking care of the body, taking care of our minds.” Recasting them as conscious choices you’re making to protect public health can help restore a sense of order to the chaos you may be feeling inside.

Source: Feeling Scatterbrained? Here’s Why