We Have All Hit a Wall

“So many things seem like so much more work than my brain can possibly manage,” she said: sending routine emails, brushing her teeth after every meal, reading a novel. She has started drinking coffee from a mug that says, “Apathy Is the Best Whatever.”

“It feels like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, bouncing around you in a sort of circle. I feel like I’ve done all of them at least twice,” she said. At least she loves her job, she added. “And I’m fine — I’m not dead.”

Natasha Rajah, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University who specializes in memory and the brain, said the longevity of the pandemic — endless monotony laced with acute anxiety — had contributed to a sense that time was moving differently, as if this past year were a long, hazy, exhausting experience lasting forever and no time at all. The stress and tedium, she said, have dulled our ability to form meaningful new memories.

“There’s definitely a change in how people are reporting memories and cognitive experiences,” Professor Rajah said. “They have fewer rich details about their personal memories, and more negative content to their memories.” This means, she said, that people may be having a harder time forming working memories and paying attention, with “a reduced ability to hold things in their minds, manipulate thoughts and plan for the future.”

Add to that a general loneliness, social isolation, anxiety and depression, she said, and it is not surprising that they are having trouble focusing on their work.

“Honestly, weirdly, sometimes when I’m writing I just stop and stare at the wall,” said Valerie M., a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in Michigan who asked that her full name not be used because she did not want her employers to hear how her workdays are going. “The staring at the wall contributes to the time warp. I’m like, ‘I spent the whole day, and I really didn’t do anything.’ Not that I did anything fun, either. It’s like, ‘Wow, I don’t even know what I did.’”

Prolonged stress will do that to you, said Mike Yassa, professor of neuroscience and the director of the UCI Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. “Stress is OK in small amounts, but when it extends over time it’s very dangerous,” he said. “It disrupts our cycles of sleep and our regular routines in things like exercise and physical activity — all these things make it very difficult for the body to be resilient.”

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