What day is it again? Have I already gone shopping this week? Who sent me that text message to which I have to reply?
With most of Australia well out of lockdown — even going back to some pre-COVID routines — why do many of us still have memory problems?
Ongoing impact of life in lockdown
Lockdowns were stressful for many people and for a long period of time.
People adapted to working from home, learning to go to school at home, experiencing job loss, caring for sick relatives, not to mention getting COVID-19 or the fear of getting it.
Over weeks and months of shutdowns – and then more weeks and months of changing restrictions – we’ve had little to no relief.
“That chronic stress response builds up and takes its toll on brain function,” says neuroscientist Dr. Lila Landowski of the University of Tasmania.
“Stress is a tethered physical response that affects our entire body,” explains Dr. Landowski out.
“While brief moments of stress can help us reach our peak performance, when that stress lasts for months to years, it can have deleterious effects on the body — including altering brain structure and function.”
For example, the hippocampus — where short-term memory is stored — can shrink from prolonged exposure to stress hormones such as cortisol.
“The connections between neurons in the hippocampus become weaker, making it difficult to retain information,” she says.
“Therefore, a chronically stressed person may have trouble keeping track of what they are doing or have trouble remembering things.”
We are probably still stressed
In our so-called COVID normal life, we also struggle with new stressors.
Everything from remembering to take a mask with you when you leave the house to complying with the changing restrictions means there’s an extra load on our brains that we’re not used to.
We need to consider new risks for everyday activities, such as going to local shops or visiting grandparents in aged care.
All this causes stress which in turn affects memory and increases forgetfulness.
“Everything has gotten a little more difficult during the pandemic,” said Dr Celia Harris, senior research fellow of the vice chancellor in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Western Sydney.
“This means we’re doing extra cognitive work all the time, and this acts like an extra load on our cognitive functioning, making routine tasks more difficult and more likely to fail.”
Even returning to pre-COVID activities — such as going to work and taking the kids to school — can lead to the memory-deteriorating effects of chronic stress.
“Going back to work means returning to the stress of bumper-to-bumper traffic for the long commute home,” says Dr. Landowski.
“It could mean putting family health at risk by potentially bringing COVID home from work [to] them.”
All is not lost
As we forge new routines and return to old ones, memory will likely improve — and “lost” memories may return.
“Current theories of memory claim that memory is a function of the correspondence between the circumstances of remembering and the circumstances in which memory was formed,” said Dr Adam Osth, senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Melbourne.
“In other words, when you’re sad, it’s easier to remember memories of when you’re sad,” he explains, “but harder to remember memories. [of] if you’re happy.”
So if you’re experiencing ongoing stress, it can affect your ability to remember events from quieter times in your life.
“If someone instead is experiencing ‘ups and downs’ right now, their memories will fluctuate along with that emotional roller coaster,” says Dr. Osth.
So maybe you remember something one day, but forget it the next – or vice versa.
“This can lead to feelings, as their memory runs out. We expect that things that have been forgotten should remain forgotten,” says Dr. Osth.
“But this corresponds exactly to how our memory works.
“Most importantly, if you can’t remember something, it doesn’t necessarily mean the memory is lost.”
Do you want to refresh your memory? A real jog can help
To improve your memory, Dr. Landowski recommends three things: exercise, sleep and socialize.
“By increasing blood flow to the body, exercise delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the brain, it releases feel-good endorphins and growth factors that support the growth of new neurons,” says Dr. Landowski.
She says she aims for 150 minutes of heart-warming, sweat-inducing exercise per week.
“When you hang out with people you like — especially when you’re having physical contact — a cocktail of neurotransmitters is released in your brain, which has a range of effects, including lowering levels of the stress hormone cortisol,” she adds. ready.
dr. Osth recommends avoiding things that permanently damage memories, “like drinking too much alcohol or sleeping badly.”
“Most memory-related impairments should return to normal as life conditions return to normal.”
On the other hand, he adds, “when the pandemic ends, people may have an easier time remembering pre-pandemic memories, but have a harder time remembering pandemic memories”.
dr. Harris advocates the use of memory tools.
“If your memory is failing, outsource it to your lists, calendars, and your smartphone,” she says.
“Part of the solution is recognizing where you have trouble remembering and consciously deploying strategies to deal with it — and recognizing that we’ve all gone through ongoing major upheaval, and we’re expected to function in different ways. [than] before.”