If you are struggling to concentrate, find any kind of motivation, or get distracted from simple tasks during lockdown, you are not alone, and there is a reason why.
This ‘groundhog day’ effect of lockdown can actually have an impact on our memory and cognitive ability, a recent study discovered, but a few variations on our daily activity and exercise can help.
Shocking effect lockdown could be having on your brain
The study conducted on Italians who were locked down for about two months last year found an increase in distractions and mind wandering was common. In fact, of the 4000 people in the study, 30 per cent had experienced some degree of change in their everyday cognition.
Some of the common everyday problems were memory problems, such as where you left your mobile phone, trouble in focusing your attention, and losing focus when trying to read a book or watching something online.
"Literally starting one job and without thinking about it, going off and starting a second job without finishing the first one," Professor Brett Hayes, a cognitive psychologist from UNSW’s School of Psychology, explains.
"It was also worse for people who had emotional issues, who were feeling depressed, or stressed and anxious, they had more of these symptoms. But even for those without those issues, these cognitive issues were very common."
The study suggests the reason why our everyday memory gets worse in lockdown is because we are living through a sort of Groundhog Day, which in turn makes it harder for our brain to lay down memories and retrieve them later on.
"What we know about human memory is that the context is really important. You might be doing a job at home, chatting to a friend, or watching a movie," Prof. Hayes says.
"When we have those experiences, we might be focused on the main part of the experience, but our brain is actually encoding a lot of other things just incidentally, like where that’s happening, the location, where and when it’s taking place."
He says our brain is sensitive to this background context, which helps us lay down our memories in a way that it’s easy for us to retrieve those experiences later on.
"But when you are in lockdown, your opportunities to move around in the environment and engage in different activities are very limited," he adds.
So how do we get out of 'groundhog day'?
While social events and outings are limited when in a lockdown, some level of social interaction is still achievable - whether by a phone or zoom call, or a walk with your friend or sister.
Any levels of social interaction during lockdown were correlated with cognitive performance, according to another study on a two-month lockdown in Scotland last year, which gave people online tasks to test their memory, decision making, and selective attention.
They found performance was poorer during lockdown, but once some restrictions were eased, particularly the social isolation, they recovered quite quickly.
"People who were able to maintain their online interaction more during lockdown did better at these tasks,” he says.
"So complete isolation is really very bad for our cognitive functioning, but if we can keep up that level of interaction to some degree with whoever is in our house or online, that seems to be good for our cognitive functioning."
Researchers have also found that people who had conversations within the last three days were a bit more protected from cognitive issues during long lockdown.
Other studies have also pointed to the importance of having a bit of variation and exercise every day.
"From a memory point of view, if you are able to exercise outside the house, vary those exercise paths from day to day to just to allow a different context for your brain to encode those different days, if you want to be able to remember what you did from day to day a bit better," Prof. Hayes says.
Variations on exercises and activities in your house or apartment will also help you avoid the memory fog.
"There’s some evidence that even if you are really restricted – even doing something like playing Exergames (online exercise games) where you watch a screen and jump around, that does show some benefits. The nice thing is that you can play with your family and so there’s a social dimension as well," he suggests.
Online yoga and dancing were things that people reported as part of their activity which he says seemed to have a beneficial effect on cognition.
Mental health support for yourself or a loved one can be found by calling Lifeline on 13 11 14, Mensline on 1300 789 978, or Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800. Online support is available via Beyond Blue.
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