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Stress and anxiety wear down your brain. Here’s how to fight back.

0 2 years ago

Perhaps you find yourself caught in an endless scroll on social media, or closing apps just to immediately reopen them. Perhaps you pick up a book only to put it back down shortly after because none of the words are registering. Perhaps you have so much on your plate that your mind keeps jumping from thought to thought without actually finishing any of them.

Why you can’t concentrate

There are a lot of things that could possibly be squashing your focus and attention, but ruling out any previous medical conditions, we can likely boil it down to two main offenders.

Stress and anxiety are among the most well-understood factors influencing memory. When we experience immense or chronic stress, it’s normal for our brains to stay in survival mode, says Carmen Sandi, a neuroscientist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. It’s an evolutionary adaptation where as soon as our nervous system senses danger, it prioritizes the areas of the brain in charge of keeping us alive, to detriment of other processes, such as critical thinking. Also a result of going into “survival mode” is our instinct to dart our attention around, as we must be hyper-aware of incoming threats.

But that doesn’t mean that any amount of stress is bad—“to perform well, to learn and to be efficient, a bit of stress is quite good,” says Sandi. Small doses of stress put your nervous system slightly on alert, heightening your focus and attention. But it works in an inverted “U” shape—once stress levels pass a certain threshold, the effect reverses and your nervous system starts to only pay attention to basic survival needs rather than complicated thought processes. Anything that causes you acute or chronic stress and anxiety—like being a parent, or suffering from a physical or mental health condition—can worsen your ability to remember things or pay close attention to the world around you.

People with long-COVID often have difficulty concentrating. What’s worrying is that not every source of stress is controllable on an individual level. The pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and other economic stressors all pile on top of the persisting pressures of everyday life. This makes bouncing back and recovering our mental functions a difficult task, but there are small things we can do to get there.


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