Rifling through his cupboards for an unopened ballroom dance class DVD was an evidence-based decision for Brett Hayes.
A professor of psychology at University New South Wales who focuses on cognition, Hayes was reviewing the literature that has emerged from waves of coronavirus lockdowns and saw the positive impact that both exercise and socialising had on people’s cognitive health during extended periods of isolation.
In Sydney’s current lengthening lockdown he and his partner have been practising ballroom dancing every Friday and Saturday night. Hayes says dance, alongside exercise-based video games, are physical as well as social. “They really get you engaged with another person. We found that quite useful.”
By now we are all familiar with the psychological toll protracted lockdowns take. In addition to impacting our moods, studies from Italy and Scotland have found that life in confinement can also affect your thinking.
, which involved subjects completing computer-based tasks to test their memory, attention and judgment, found that during lockdown, “people were a lot worse than they normally are at doing those tasks”, Hayes says.
Meanwhile,of 4,000 people in Italy during last year’s hard lockdowns found at least 30% of people experienced “mild disruption to cognitive activities”, Hayes says. “Cases of straight-out forgetting where you left your glasses or phone … a lot of people reported difficulty staying on task, mind wandering and distraction. If you’re experiencing this, you’re absolutely not alone. It is very, very common.”
Fortunately, there are some small steps you can take – not all of them samba or solo spot volta – to help mitigate these problems, and many also have a positive impact on mood.
Force yourself to move
“A lot of work going on in Italy showed that if you can do vigorous exercise that’s great,” Hayes says. “But under lockdown that’s not easy … even doing reasonable amounts of exercise … does seem to have a positive effect on wellbeing and cognition.”
Viviana Wuthrich, director of the Centre for Ageing, Cognition and Wellbeing at Macquarie University, says it is entirely normal to feel unmotivated about exercise (and everything else) but “it’s about pushing yourself to just do it”.
“Motivation is a mindset, and lockdown creates low motivation … You might have to force yourself to do exercise, work or even do something pleasurable … But don’t give up, you might not do the best, but you still need to try.”
Exercise is very important for your mood as well as your thinking, Wuthrich says. “It burns up that stress hormone, cortisol. More vigorous exercise will burn it up faster, but … anything is better than nothing.”
Have a chat – however you can
“I know we’re getting tired of the Zoom parties, but it does actually seem to be important,” Hayes says.
“If you allow yourself to become too isolated these cognitive issues tend to get worse. You really want that back and forth,” he says, saying that live conversation with those in your household, or video chats will both help. “It keeps the memory and attention geed up and focused.”
When Australian researchers, including Wuthrich, surveyed older Australians about how they were coping with lockdowns last year, the positive impact of social contact (even virtual) on mood was clear. “Older people living alone fared worse, but older people who had frequent contact with their grandchildren, even over video call, fared better,” she says.
Socialise in any way that does not break restrictions, she advises. Whether it’s an outdoor walk with a friend, or a single bubble. “Within the limits that people have, whatever those might be, make use of those opportunities.”
If every day feels the same – make them different
The importance of keeping to a routine is, by now, well-worn advice. When it comes to work or study, Hayes says a regular schedule is valuable. “Otherwise every five or six minutes you’re having to make a decision about what you’re doing now.
“If you’ve got a spot which is your work or study location, keeping that association constant seems to help you get things done … If you associate that chair or table with working, you don’t have to use your intentional willpower.”
To avoid blurring days, introducing small differences can have a big impact. “Getting out in everyday life meant we were going to different locations, we’d have unpredictable social interactions … We encode a lot of this background stuff and that’s what helps us differentiate one memory from the next.
“That’s not how things work under Covid – we have our set tasks but it’s pretty much Groundhog Day in context.”
Hayes suggests introducing variety, such as changing your walking or running route daily or teeing up a phone call with someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. “Anything that breaks up the repetitive context.”
While Hayes says there’s no “detailed research” on whether binge-watching the same TV show night after night worsens “what day is it?” feelings, he says “my hunch is yes”.
Lift your mood with small pleasures
If you usually take pleasure in trying new things, introducing some novelty to your life may also help with your mood, says Wuthrich. But pleasure is the operative word. Rereading a favourite book or watching a beloved movie is more helpful if you’ll enjoy that more.
“We can’t go and do the really cool fun things … but there are heaps of things to do, it’s about changing that attitude. Do something that’s pleasurable but not necessarily exciting: do a puzzle, listen to music, even dig out that old instrument you haven’t touched.
“Each of these little pleasurable activities will incrementally lift your mood and build on each other.”
When you have control, use it
The lack of control we feel in lockdown is particularly stressful, Wuthrich says. This means it is very important to flex whatever agency we have. “We know giving people little choices makes us feel empowered.
“We need to think about what we can control in our own lives. That’s how often we go outside, what we eat and drink, what movies we watch.”
That extends to choosing when to take breaks or let things slide. If you are having trouble with work or your children are having difficulty with studies, “go, get outside, do something else … that will break that mental fatigue and you’ll feel more refreshed”.
This is particularly important for parents, Wuthrich notes. “I have to use this tip myself: take a deep breath and accept you can’t always do the best at work and home school, and just decide what is going to give a bit. You can prioritise work tasks, or your kids – be forgiving and accepting of that … there’s no right answer.”
Remember, this will end
“Stresses feel worse when they feel like they’re forever,” Wuthrich says. “That’s not the case with this.
“While we don’t know when the end date is … it’s not going to be this particularly restrictive thing forever. Even though the pandemic has gone on for 18 months, it has fluctuated. Sometimes it’s more restrictive, sometimes less. Remember that.”
On that note, Hayes also has some good news. If your brain feels zapped, it will bounce back.
In the study of lockdown cognition undertaken in Scotland, researchers repeated the tasks after restrictions eased. “And there’s a clear trajectory that people got better as restrictions were lifted … People’s performance on all tasks got better.”
He notes that those in very hard lockdown conditions “did take a lot longer to recover” but “they got there in the end”.