Better Me

Caring for Your Brain During Stressful Times

“What was I going to say?…I’m not getting anything done…I keep forgetting what I was going to do…I keep losing my temper.”

Sound familiar? You are not alone. Many of us have trouble concentrating, forgetting things we were going to do, walking around in a “fog” or ignoring the projects we wanted to tackle when we are stressed. So, what is going on?

How stress affects your brain

Stress, worry, fear, and anxiety can affect your cognition, meaning brain functions like attention, concentration, memory, language, reasoning, and problem-solving. You might find yourself distracted throughout the day thinking about the scary news you read this morning, wondering how your relatives are doing, planning your children’s school projects or worrying about the supplies you could not find at the store yesterday.

Our brain is also responsible for controlling our emotions and behavior. During times of stress, you might find yourself losing your temper more easily, saying and doing things that are out of character for you or having more difficulty controlling how much you eat or drink.

“Even when you are not actively thinking about the stressful situation, it could still be affecting you,” said Marisa Menchola, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist with Banner Brain & Spine. “Think about the stress and worry as a window on your computer or an app on your phone that is always running in the background, taking away mental resources from the things you are trying to focus on and get done.”

Stress can also affect your brain by disrupting sleep. Perhaps you are having difficulty falling asleep, you are waking up in the middle of the night or your sleep is light or restless. “Poor sleep can cause changes in your cognition, including slow thinking and lapses in attention. It can also affect your mood and your ability to control your behavior,” said Dr. Menchola. “For example, it may be more difficult to make healthy food choices when sleep deprived.”

Tips to help your brain function better under stress

Dr. Menchola suggests some ways to help yourself think more clearly and stay on track during these stressful times.

  1. Outsource brain tasks: Because your brain might be running the “coronavirus worry app” in the background, the goal is to reduce other demands on your brain. Write everything down, even if you don’t think you need to. Keep a to-do list and check things off as you get them done. Do things as soon as you remember them or add them to your to-do list immediately. Set alarms to remind you to take a medication, join that online meeting or email your child’s teacher.
  2. Give yourself plenty of time: Getting things done might take you longer during this time of increased stress. Schedule more time than it usually takes for you to read that weekly work report or help your child with their math assignment. Break larger projects, like reorganizing your home office, into smaller tasks that you can tackle over several days.
  3. Double-check: During times of stress, you might make mistakes that you don’t typically make. Take time to proofread that memo you just finished, double-check the amount on that check you just wrote and confirm that you got everything on your grocery list before heading home.
  4. Do not try to multitask: While we might think we are good at multitasking, or doing more than one thing at a time, our brains are in fact not good at it. When we think we are multitasking, our brains are actually shifting attention and mental resources back and forth between two or more things, like following a recipe and answering your toddler’s questions, or writing an email and listening to a conference call. This shifting is cognitively expensive—it takes considerable mental resources. As much as you can, work on one thing at a time, and get one thing done before moving on to the next.
  5. Avoid distractions: Trying to ignore distractions while you focus on something else takes mental resources away from the task at hand and makes it more likely that you will make mistakes. Even if you’re usually able to get work done while the kids watch TV, during this stressful time it might be harder to suppress those distractions. When possible turn off the phone ringer and work in a separate room if you can. If you cannot avoid distractions, try to do tasks that require relatively little mental effort. It is easier to organize the pantry than it is to review the household finances while Daniel Tiger is playing in the background.
  6. Hit pause: If you find yourself getting distracted repeatedly or feeling stressed or frustrated, take a break. Get up and stretch, take a few deep breaths while looking out the window, or play a short, calming song. Don’t start working on something else or check the news! The point is to give your brain a break. Think of your brain as a snow globe that has been shaken and you’re trying to keep it still so the snowflakes stop fluttering around.
  7. Turn phone notifications off: Although reminders and alarms are your friends, notifications are the enemy. Notifications make our brains shift back and forth throughout the day, between whatever task we are doing and that text, email, post or comment. Over and over. Turn off notifications that you do not absolutely need and schedule times to check your email, social media and news sources, in between getting things done.
  8. Schedule worry time: Choose a time and place when you will do nothing but worry. For example, every afternoon from 4 to 4:30PM on the living room couch. When you find yourself worrying during the day, write down that worry as a way of getting the thought out of your head. Similarly, limit how much news you consume. You might choose to watch the news for only 30 minutes every morning, or you might choose only three pandemic-related articles to read each day. Do not have your worry time or watch the news close to your bedtime or while in bed.
  9. Take care of your body: What is good for your body is good for your brain. Follow the usual strategies to stay healthy. Exercise safely, however you can. Moderate your intake of sweets, fats, and alcohol. Practice relaxation methods like diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness meditation. Protect your sleep as much as possible. Try to have a calming bedtime routine that signals to your body and mind that it is time to wind down, go to bed and wake up at regular times every day, and avoid staring at your phone or laptop in bed.

Finally, give yourself a break. Be patient and have self-compassion if you are not your “normal” self—remember, you have extra apps running in the background. You will miss things. You will make mistakes. You will bounce back. Keep your expectations simple and your to-do list short. Take care of yourself and your loved ones.

If you notice that your stress or worry are becoming too hard to manage or your loved ones express concern about you, seek help. Many mental health professionals are offering therapy and counseling services using telehealth, over the phone or video. To find a licensed mental health professional in your area, visit

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