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It’s not in your head: The pandemic is making you more forgetful

How stress during the pandemic — and COVID-19 infections — can cause forgetfulness and brain fog.

There's no doubt the COVID-19 pandemic has been a stressful time. And as you return to more of your pre-COVID activities, you might notice that stress is affecting your memory, making you more forgetful or just feel "foggy."

"Too much stress can literally destroy memory cells," Sarah Mednick, a professor of cognitive science at University of California Irvine, told NBC's Erin McLaughlin. "When you stay at home and you see the same people and you’re within the same four walls, you lose context and you lose novelty. And when we lose those things, it’s very easy to lose memories."

So, if you're finding it difficult to remember your co-workers' names as you transition back to the office or feel like you're always misplacing your keys, you're not alone right now.

Post-COVID symptoms can include brain fog

Stress can lead to forgetfulness and brain fog — and a COVID-19 infection can, too. Even young and healthy people can develop post-COVID neurological conditions, TODAY previously reported. Those long-lasting symptoms can pop up even after a mild COVID-19 illness.

"Most of the individuals that I'm seeing are young," Dr. Joanna Hellmuth, a neurologist at the University of California San Francisco, said. "They say, 'You know, I used to be able to do this, and now I can't. My brain doesn't work the way it used to.'"

When to see your doctor about forgetfulness

Some people who have post-COVID brain fog will improve on their own after a few weeks or months, experts told TODAY previously, and stress-induced memory loss is believed to be temporary.

"Once we get past this transition phase, a lot of that forgetfulness will probably pass," Mednick said.

But if your symptoms are impacting your everyday life, you should talk to your doctor.

"When this is really starting to impair your ability to do your job, that's really a sign that this is probably out of the range of normal for you," Hellmuth explained.

If your doctor determines that your symptoms might be due to your previous COVID-19 infection, they could refer you to a neuropsychologist for more evaluation. Or they may send you to a specialist to receive treatment in the form of cognitive rehabilitation. Some patients also find that playing puzzle games, like Wordle, can help with their symptoms.

But researchers like Mednick and Hellmuth are just beginning to understand how COVID-19 affects the brain and the long-lasting impact the virus can leave on the body. As experts learn more, they may be better able to predict who will and won't develop post-COVID symptoms like these.