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Fog Lights

The fog we’ll examine here is mental; I hope to provide some illumination on at least one variant of the subject. Much has appeared in the media about the “brain fog” some people experience among other lingering symptoms in the wake of their COVID-19 infections. What I’m about to discuss is a symptom of the pandemic’s broader impact on us, regardless of whether or not we fell prey to the virus biologically. Obviously, many who escaped severe illness still paid a high price. Anxiety about one’s own health or the safety of loved ones, stress over financial losses and political strife, and weariness of uncertainty all took heavy tolls on the mental health of vast swaths of the population. Those are pretty straightforward issues wherein its easy to draw lines between cause and effect. Other factors are perhaps not so readily apparent. “Decision fatigue” is one of these.

Listen to this column as Episode 2 of  The Ride Inside with Mark Barnes; the episode includes a Q&A session about recovering from a traumatic motorcycle-related incident or other disturbing experience. Submit your questions to Mark for the podcast by emailing [email protected].

During normal times, large portions of our daily life are conducted on autopilot. We don’t have to think much about how to brush our teeth, get to work, cook familiar meals, mow the lawn, etc. These are such oft-practiced routines, we’re barely conscious of them. Our minds are usually on other things while our bodies go through the motions. We’re daydreaming about vacation, planning a sequence of errands for later, worrying about a report deadline, listening to music or a podcast. There’s surplus mental space and we fill it with other stuff, be it pleasant, pragmatic, or distressing. How many times have we driven to the office or grocery store and then realized we had no memory of the trip because our attention was elsewhere? Only when something out of the ordinary crops up does our mind suddenly refocus on the immediate situation. Of course, this may happen too late to avoid catastrophe in some cases, such as operating a vehicle, but that’s another topic. My point here is novelty jerks us into the present moment and commands our mental faculties, whereas the hyper-familiar leaves us free to muse about other things.

During all the societal upheavals and practical gyrations of the pandemic, familiar routines fell like dominos. Working from home (or losing work), dealing with children at home instead of school, navigating business closures and restrictions on daily activities, adapting to protective health measures, changing established patterns of social interaction (the list goes on ad nauseum) all involved large-scale, long-term deviations from our old routines. Things we could have done on autopilot in the past now required much more of our attention and constant problem-solving on a wide range of levels, from trivial to monumental. Simply picking up food had to be figured out in new ways because restaurants were closed, market supplies were erratic, and the time available for meal preparation could be dramatically different than before. Even folks whose schedules grew more relaxed (e.g., minus their long commutes) still had to deal with extensive external changes requiring numerous forced adjustments in how they managed their time and activities. In other words, few people avoided an avalanche of novel demands on their cognitive apparatus.

Photo by cottonbro.

Without well-worn grooves to handle most of the day’s steering, all sorts of things had to be monitored, evaluated, and decided anew. Not only were they different than they’d been pre-pandemic, but many kept changing as scientific guidance evolved, political jurisdictions thrashed around, and businesses, schools, places of worship, sports operations, and most every other organization on the planet struggled to adapt. Chaos is exhausting in large part because of the constant need to triage the multitude of demands bombarding us from unpredictable directions. Independent of the magnitude of any particular challenge, the sheer quantity alone is extremely taxing. The mental “idling” accompanying established routines is no longer available for resting our concentration or multitasking, leaving us paradoxically both more tired and less productive. No wonder anxiety and depression increased markedly during this period, but again, that’s another topic; I’m sticking with the issue of mental fog here.

Many of my friends and people I see in psychotherapy have wondered aloud why they don’t feel much better as the restrictions and fears associated with the pandemic have eased lately. Sure, they’re glad to be able to move through the day’s activities more freely and have greater access to social interaction, but all that involves yet another tsunami of disrupted routines. As onerous as some of the pandemic adaptions may have been, they at least had started to become relatively mindless habits instead of new problems to solve. Some changes might even have ended up feeling preferable to the old ways of doing things, but even switching back to prior patterns we’re excited to re-embrace means applying yet more mental energy. Social skills, for example, can rust just like riding skills during periods of disuse. We’re all accustomed to the need for more deliberate concentration when we resume riding each spring. We may be surprised, however, to find ourselves feeling awkward or committing an uncharacteristic faux pas as we reenter the social sphere after a lengthy period of relative isolation. More attention and effort are required, even for enjoyable, highly anticipated changes.

At rest, the brain consumes an astonishing 20% of our body’s energy budget—even while we sleep! When more actively employed, this allocation can increase significantly. Conscious decision-making burns additional energy-related resources and reduces the mental space available for other matters. When we must exercise this faculty continuously rather than intermittently, we typically have subjective experiences of both fatigue and unfamiliar limitations on our cognitive processing. While comparisons between neurological functions and computer systems have plenty of problems, an analogy to RAM (random access memory) seems appropriate here. There’s a finite amount of attention and “working memory”—the cognitive equivalent of RAM—available to any individual. These fluctuate with lots of other factors, such as emotional state, sleep deprivation, hormone and neurotransmitter levels, but at any given moment there is only so much a person can track and process. When we have less room in our heads, some things don’t make it in and our processing speed slows down; we miss details, forget stuff, and must resort to using prosthetics—like paper and pencil—to organize our thoughts, make calculations, or complete any number of other mental operations we’d normally do with far less deliberate effort. The aggregate experience is frequently described as “fogginess” by those suffering it.

Photo by Alex Fu.

In such a state, our abilities are understandably compromised. It’s important to recognize this for at least two reasons. First, if we view this phenomenon as a moral failing instead of a normal reaction to overload, we compound our misery (and probably our degree of impairment) by adding self-criticism to the equation. Rather than spurring us on to a higher level of performance, the effect is apt to be counterproductive, adding to our distractions and stress. The same applies in our judgements of others. Secondly, if we don’t take such impairment seriously, we put ourselves and others in peril by plowing ahead as though we’re at our usual level of functioning. Operating a vehicle while foggy obviously risks life and limb, but making big decisions about finances, careers, or relationships while “not in our right minds” can also have devastating consequences. This is probably not the time to overhaul your brakes, rebalance your investment portfolio, jump on a promotion, or reconfigure your family relations, without some way of clearing your mind first.

Yet there’s no denying the need to get certain things done and the unavoidable urgency of some decisions. What’s a poor brain to do?

Generic self-care is always a foundational element in mental health and should include physical exercise, good eating and sleeping habits, effective relaxation, and meaningful engagement with supportive friends and family. Covering all of these is far beyond the scope of this essay. Instead, I’ll focus more tightly on addressing the problem of lost and disrupted routines.

Just knowing how crucial routines are to our functioning is part of the solution. This makes us more motivated to direct attention and effort into streamlining our days with stable patterns. This may mean prying our attention away from the anxiety-provoking impingement of the moment to develop a “big picture” plan, accepting a short-term loss in responsiveness to achieve a larger-scale gain. Rather than surrendering to entropy, we need to forge replacement structure as promptly as possible by implementing new routines. Even if we have to revise these systems over time, we at least have some reason to feel confident the most important things will get done—they’re on the calendar! Yes, we can no longer take care of errands X, Y and Z like we used to each week, but we don’t have to continually reinvent the wheel if we create an alternate arrangement with a reasonable chance of sustainability. This investment pays off, as long as we don’t become too rigid; nature breaks what doesn’t bend.

Respite is not a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity for resilience. Closing a hard boundary around chunks of time wherein we will not be dealing with the constant barrage of novel demands allows for much more efficient handling of those demands when we again open ourselves up to them. The time subtracted is generally less than the time saved, yielding a net increase in productivity. This cannot just be the time we spend asleep! While the comprehensive rest of sleep is vital, we also need recreational time. In fact, without the latter, the former usually becomes very elusive. Recreation might be passively watching a movie, meditating, actively playing a sport or musical instrument, or creating a piece of art. It is walling off the mind from the day’s concerns and letting it roam in a different domain for a while. Even very brief reprieves can reset our circuitry in advantageous ways. A few minutes of deep breathing every couple of hours can feel transformative when done consistently. Such diversified activity often supports a more creative approach to problem-solving elsewhere and a better attitude all around. Taking breaks doesn’t make the demands disappear, but it does make us better at addressing them. It can be terribly hard to turn our eyes away from matters we consider threatening but doing so helps us see more clearly when we return our gaze to those same matters afterward.

Photo by Kelly Lacy.

As simplistic as this may seem, the more regularity and rhythm we can put in place, the better. Taking a 20-minute walk each day is good, doing it the same time each day is better. Certainly, monotony can be obnoxious, or even soul-crushing in some cases, but it’s a matter of context. When the world feels like a swirling maelstrom, islands of sameness are welcome and refreshing. When life feels overwhelmingly stagnant, this principle reverses and we crave novelty. Remember when your young children insisted on hearing the same bedtime story night after night? You may have been puzzled or exasperated by their fixation on a certain book, long after they’d clearly memorized every detail. This phenomenon isn’t so mysterious if you consider how much of their days were spent confronting unfamiliar, or at least as-yet-unmastered, challenges. The desire to end the day with something utterly predictable and dependable makes perfect sense, especially if that “same old story” involved a theme relevant to their developmental concerns at the time. Likewise, in the midst of pandemic-related turmoil, we may find it unexpectedly soothing to listen repeatedly to familiar music, re-watch movies, and give old novels another read. At an even more fundamental level, activities in which rhythm is integral, like singing, chanting, dancing, and playing musical instruments, can feel immensely restorative, especially when coordinated with others. These provide a bodily (as well as mental) experience of regularity in sharp contrast to the randomness elsewhere.

Earlier I advised against overhauling your brakes while foggy, since missing a little detail could have disastrous consequences. However, going through highly routinized maintenance procedures (oil changes, spoke tightening, chain lubing, cleaning and polishing, etc.) can be like playing a favorite oldie on guitar when these serve as much-needed vacations in the land of the highly familiar and relatively mindless. They require just enough attention to keep other concerns at bay, but not enough to cause further depletion, and they’re easy, reliable wins.

The above measures won’t magically dispel all the ills of the recent era’s discombobulation, but they may help clear some of the consequent mental fogginess. The pandemic ordeal is far from over, even if the worst biological impact is behind us. Adjusting to whatever form the new normal takes will extend the extra demands placed on our minds for some time still to come.