COVID Brain Fog

I was working with a client online recently (since COVID I have been strictly doing teletherapy) and she told me that she has been feeling forgetful like she is in a fog. She has been working from home since March and while business has not slowed down for her she can’t seem to keep track of things like she used to.  As I’m talking to her I can see she is in her dark and somewhat dreary basement.  She noted that this is her at the home office as it gives her privacy from the kids and her husband.

As we explored her forgetfulness, a pattern began to emerge.  She is still attending lots of online meetings every day but she often loses track of time or finds that some of the smaller tasks that normally fell between regular meetings were being overlooked by her. She noted that when she was in the office, the physical space helped her connect her day.  She might have gone to one conference room for an early morning meeting and after that meeting checked in with an employee whose office was near that conference room. 

When she went to another conference room for a late morning meeting she had a routine to get things done near that conference room including grabbing a coffee. She also noticed that getting up and moving from one physical space to another helped her change gears from one meeting or activity to another. This allowed her a few moments to wrap her mind around the new meeting or task she was about to start. As she sat in her dimly lit, dreary basement and wondered why she was so forgetful I asked her how she now changed from one activity to another. 

She noted that the only thing telling her it was time to change was the clock.  There was no walking with colleagues to or from a meeting and no stopping by the coffee machine. Her view never changed all day long so her afternoon routine was virtually no different from her morning routine which was work on her computer until there was an online meeting and once the meeting ended, work on the computer until the next meeting.   

A few days later I was sitting in my office in an online meeting at my day job (I supervise an adolescent psychiatric unit).  I suddenly realized I had completely lost track of the meeting conversation. I thought about my client and I realized that this has been happening to me more than it used to ever happen when I was attending meetings in person. After reflecting on both my clients and my own experiences I came up with a hypothesis. 

First off, when we are not physically present in a meeting we tend to multitask more. Most of us would never check our e-mails while sitting around a conference table but if we can’t physically be seen we might be tempted to try to use the meeting time more “effectively” by multitasking.  The second part of my hypotheses is that our brains crave stimulation and without enough stimulation, our brains get bored and tend to wander.  So what is the answer? 

Well, my suggestions to my client and myself are threefold. First, stop trying to multitask if you find yourself mentally drifting. Secondly, make sure your workspace is bright and stimulating and thirdly, schedule routine breaks in your day when you will get a new cup of coffee, go check the mail, take the dog for a short walk, etc. You may feel that you don’t have the time for these short breaks that both get your blood flowing and provide you with a brief change of scenery, but if you are experiencing COVID Brain Fog, you can’t afford to not take these breaks.

Larry Blackwell, LCSW, AADC

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