Think you might have ‘COVID brain’? You’re not alone

So, you’ve become more acquainted with Netflix than showering and all those well-meaning self-improvement ventures have been gathering dust since April.

It’s understandable. After all, who could have imagined we would still find ourselves grappling with the virus that has come to define modern life — and the restrictions that come with it — some six months after it entered the global consciousness?

“When we had the first lockdown, there was a novelty to it,” offers Rachael Murrihy, a clinical psychologist and director of the Kidman Centre UTS.

“People were getting creative and playing boardgames and doing all these sorts of things. But people are fatigued with it now.”

With the borders closed, families separated and no clear end to the crisis in sight, it’s easy to become trapped in this cycle of exhaustion.

So how do you keep the faith during these uncertain times? We asked the experts for their top tips.

The second time is harder

Finding the second wave more challenging than the first? Rest assured, you’re not alone.

According to Mike Kyrios, a clinical psychologist at Flinders University, the sense of comradery that defined the early stages of the pandemic was fractured as the virus again took hold down south.

Mike Kyrios smiling at the camera with Aboriginal artwork hanging behind him
Professor Kyrios has developed a framework called STREAM to help people cope during the pandemic.(Supplied: Flinders University)

“Just as [the second wave] was beginning to ramp up again, we started to feel all those feelings that we had at the beginning, but it was a little bit worse,” he says.

So how can you overcome these sorts of anxieties and feelings of isolation?

Professor Kyrios points to an acronym called STREAM — a framework he developed with Flinder’s Órama Institute for Mental Health and Wellbeing:

  • S is for Social networking: “Try and socialise as much as possible. It’s really important people keep in touch with others and engage socially as much as possible, whether that’s through digital means or telephone.”
  • T is for Time out: “Don’t spend your whole day watching ABC News getting updates on the Victoria situation. Turn the damn thing off and start talking to yourselves about what’s real and what’s actually happening.”
  • R is for Relaxation: “Do some relation exercises, whether it’s walking, mindfulness, yoga, breath exercises or even watching your favourite Netflix programs.”
  • E is for Exercise and entertainment: “Do things that give you a sense of mastery and a sense of pleasure. Do a little bit of exercise and up the ante or read a book.”
  • A is for Alternative thinking: “This is not like any other situation any of our generation has ever faced. But you know what? Have a chat to your grandmother or your great-grandmother, who may have been there during the Spanish Flu or Second World War. There is such wisdom in those people and there is such a sense of perspective in the older generation.”
  • M is for Mindfulness: “Do stuff for other people and be mindful of other people’s needs. Ring up that friend who you know doesn’t have family or ring up that friend who you know has just had a relationship breakup. There is great achievement and a great sense of self [in helping others], and it facilitates meaning in life.”


Take charge of what you can control

In the face of an unprecedented global challenge like the coronavirus, it’s normal to feel some sense of upheaval.

Rachael Murrihy is a clinical psychologist and director of the Kidman Institute.
Rachael Murrihy is a clinical psychologist and director of the Kidman Institute.(Supplied: UTS)

Humans like to predict the future, muses Dr Murrihy — and in the face of uncertainty, we have a tendency to “catastrophise”.

“They’re all the what if’s, but catastrophising makes us more tense and increases anxieties,” she says.

Dr Murrihy recommends reflecting on your own routine and taking charge of “what you can control”.

“If you can create a predictable routine each day — those things we know that make us feel better like exercise, eating well, being connected socially, having a normal bedtime routine — try and schedule that in,” she says.

And above all? Remind yourself that the situation is temporary.

“This too shall pass, just take it one day at a time.”

You could have ‘COVID brain’

Feeling easily overwhelmed or a little bit foggy lately?

It could be a case of “COVID brain”, says Rhonda Andrews, a senior psychologist and managing director of the Barrington Centre.

“People are saying, ‘I have a COVID brain even if I don’t have COVID’. And that’s a very valid comment, because very easily we’re feeling very overwhelmed very quickly,” she says.

Whether it’s a major project at work, or something as innocuous as the washing, Andrews recommends approaching tasks in “small bite sizes”.

“Don’t beat yourself up when it doesn’t go to plan or in the timeframe that you wanted,” she says.

“Let yourself know it’s okay given the circumstances around you — there’s so many unknowns going on that your brain and your body and your emotions are also trying to deal with.”

Perhaps most importantly, Andrews says, try and set aside some time to prioritise self-care.

“Do something nice for yourself each day that gives yourself five minutes to just enjoy.”

A woman exercising with a mask on in Melbourne.
Maintaining a daily routine, like finding time to exercise, can help reduce lockdown fatigue.(AAP: Daniel Pocket)

Additional resources

If you’ve found yourself struggling under the weight of the crisis, further resources are available to help you stay on top of your mental health.

Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute and the Department of Health (among others) have devised their own top tips for managing anxiety during the pandemic.

A heart is stitched into a patch on a tree, which has eyes and raised eyebrows.
If you’ve found yourself struggling under the weight of the crisis, further resources are available to help you stay on top of your mental health.(AAP: James Ross)

From maintaining social networks and daily routines to avoiding unhelpful media and misinformation, focusing on factors you can control can all help overcome the sense of fatigue experienced by many.

  • Remind yourself that this is a temporary period of isolation
  • Remember that your effort is helping others in the community
  • Stay connected with friends, family and colleagues via email, social media, or phone
  • Engage in healthy activities that you enjoy and find relaxing
  • Keep regular sleep routines and eat healthy foods
  • Try to maintain physical activity
  • For those working from home, try to maintain a healthy balance by allocating specific work hours, and taking regular breaks
  • Avoid news and social media if you find it distressing