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What’s happening to your brain under lockdown?

By |  Suzannah Lyons | Lynne Malcolm |

It’s become a regular topic of conversation with friends of mine as we navigate life in lockdown Melbourne: we’re more forgetful than normal, we can’t plan or make decisions, and our irritability has gone through the roof.

Basically, we’re a far cry from the competent, well-organised adults we used to be.

So is the problem with us or the pandemic?

“We’ve known for over 100 years that as soon as you become stressed, anxious, depressed, undergo any kind of trauma, your cognition becomes impaired,” says cognitive neuropsychologist Susan Rossell of Swinburne University, who’s been studying the mental health of Australians during this crisis.

And with Melbourne under stage 4 restrictions while we fight this second wave of coronavirus cases, the reason why many of us are doing worse in this lockdown has a lot to do with the long-term effects of stress on cognition, Professor Rossell says.

Let’s unpack some of what’s going on.

Your executive function skills are kaput

When we’re under prolonged stress and anxiety we basically go into a very rudimentary state of cognitive ability, Professor Rossell says.

“All of the very routine things that you do every day are going to be absolutely fine because they’re biologically hardwired into you,” she says.

But as soon as we need to do anything that requires higher order planning or thinking outside the box, we’re going to find this more difficult because we need to use our frontal lobes for these sorts of tasks.

A diagram showing the names of different sections of the human brain.
Lockdown is impacting many different parts of our brain.(Getty Images: Jobalou)

And in terms of these executive function skills, your brain is having a lot more difficulty accessing your prefrontal cortex, which is particularly important when we’re trying to make decisions, says neuroscientist Lila Landowski of the University of Tasmania.

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