Have you been finding it hard to focus on work, or that it’s more difficult than usual to think clearly? If so, you are not alone. This has been a difficult and stressful year, and this can be one of the impacts of stress on the brain.

In small and irregular amounts stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are quite good for brain function. A little bit of nervousness before an exam or before teaching a new class, or giving a talk can help us to perform optimally.

But too much stress leads the pre-frontal cortex to temporarily shut down, leaving the fight-flight-freeze amygdala in charge. This makes sense in an emergency, when you just need to react quickly, but is a lot less useful when you’ve got a lesson to plan, or a book chapter to write or edit. So, if you’re feeling this kind of level of stress, it’s vital to let your mind and body know that you are not immediately under threat.

Calm down the immediate stress response

Sometimes people get annoyed with themselves for their hyper-vigilant stress response. But this is simply your body’s way of trying to protect you. You can help your body to recognise that it is safe, by consciously switching on the parasympathetic nervous system. Deep breathing is the quickest and easiest way to do this. Be careful though, not to pant or ‘overbreath’, as this can make things worse. Instead, try box breathing. Breathe out and empty your lungs. Then breathe in to a slow count of four, hold the breath for four, let go for four, hold for four, then breath in again for four. Do this 2-4 times (no more at least until you are more used to it).

The parasympathetic nervous system automatically switches off the fight-flight-freeze sympathetic nervous system, so you should immediately feel calmer. Exercise can also have this impact, especially outdoors in fresh air, as can meditation.

Chronic stress and working memory

But even when stress is not at such high levels, if we are living with chronic low level stress, it can still impact on the functioning of the brain, as a result of what is known as cognitive load. For most of us, this year has brought a lot of new challenges. Maybe you’re trying to work from home for the first time? This means a whole load of things for your brain to deal with- finding a quiet place to work, sharing childcare duties with your partner, trying to home school. Even if, like me, you were already working from home, there are a still a lot of new things to think about around managing lockdown, keeping you and your family safe and so on.

And all of this adds to our cognitive load, or things that we have to think about consciously. In order for us to function well, most of what we do every day is done pretty much on automatic pilot. Think about the way that you do so many things at once when you are driving, and how difficult that was at first, when it was all unfamiliar and therefore conscious.

We all only have a limited amount of working memory, and therefore we rely a lot on that automatic pilot. But at the moment, we are having to focus on so many new and challenging and unpredictable things, that working memory is stretched to the absolute limit. And, it’s totally exhausting.

Some practical suggestions

So, what can we do if we’re finding it hard to focus? Well, firstly, recognise what is happening, and that it’s completely normal in such abnormal circumstances to find it hard to focus.

Secondly, try to get new routines set up to replace the old ones, so that as much as possible can slip into the automatic processing mode, and take the pressure off the working memory.

Thirdly, try not to multi-task. Your working memory is coping with enough, give it a break! When we are stressed, there is more of a tendency then ever to try and do lots of things at once, but it’s even more counter-productive then usual.

Finally, look after yourself especially well in terms of eating nutritious food and getting enough sleep- you might need more than usual at this time to let your brain recover from the extra tiring time it’s having.

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