Cognitive Coffee Beans

Image by Goumbik from Pixabay

Recently I caught a cold. That was all - a cold. I had chills, body aches, and nausea. I felt exhausted for four to five days. A tough cold but commonplace enough in the average Northeast cold and flu season that sets in every October. The weather's rapidly changing here. One day is ninety degrees. The next, I'm pulling out my sweater and looking for packets of hot cocoa to ward off the damp air as the crispy, forty-degree nights settle-in for the weeks ahead. The moist leaves and musty grass ensure scratchy eyes, and the transition from summer vacation to back-to-work fall relieves my immune system of any fight it had left. Standard course: five days of whining, complaining, and spousal pampering, and then I'm back to my old self – good as new. Not this time, though. This time, we're in a pandemic. And that changes everything.

I called my doctor's office to let them know that I didn't have a thermometer but was experiencing chills. That said, I've social distanced and remained close-to-home throughout the pandemic. I could not imagine how I would have encountered a COVID carrier. My doctors agreed it didn't sound like an emergency and set me up with an appointment five days later. In that time, several snafus caused scheduling delays for my follow-up appointment. First, I needed a COVID test at another location besides my doctor's office, so I had to schedule a second appointment after his initial referral. Next, I could not get the rapid test because I knew no one on the contact-trace list. It took ten days to get a COVID test. On the 13th day, I received my negative results. In all that time, I was told to assume I was positive and quarantine from everyone, including my husband. Me. In my room, alone. Four neutral colored walls. I had my computer. And food. And that was it.

As the days swallowed me whole into a confused and delirious state, I started to become angry at the process. Donald Trump's staff were all tested within hours of his positive diagnosis. Joe Biden got two tests in one day and excitedly told the world he was negative. I could not get one test in ten days while being told to live in solitary confinement. It was like I didn't exist. I lived in a world needing primary care referrals and insurance approval. I live in the reality that exists for most of us.

While captive, I had some nuggets of information through my laptop that thankfully kept me sane. One day I noticed I was starting to decline seriously, and I'm talking cognitively. I realized it was time to take as much action as possible to cope, or I might begin to lose opportunities, relationships, and my grasp of the world. I'm not exaggerating; the first day out of quarantine, I sat in my car basking in the sunlight beaming through the sunroof and was brought to tears. The world seemed slower yet so much brighter at the same time. It took 48 hours to remember what I do on most ordinary days. It took another week to find my humming, natural rhythm. In all, twenty-one days to normal. I would never wish this experience on anyone, but here are some tips to keep you mentally sharp – or at least bring a few moments of solace in stressful and dark times:

Imagination and Meditation

I've heard others swear by the importance of Meditation, but let's be clear: I live outside New York City. I am a New Yorker. I can be downright impatient. In regular times, Meditation throws me off my game. The best way for me to get things done? It's to do it — that simple. No thoughts. No overthinking. Just do it. But that's not an option in quarantine. Type-A, "I-Got-This" personality-types have no place in the pandemic. Meditation, however, lives well here. I sat cross-legged at the side of my bed and pictured Mexico. Ninety-degrees, umbrella-drink – way skinnier than I am - in a bikini I haven't worn for thirty years (hey, it's my Meditation, I can dream up what I want!). Anyway, it was good. It's amazing how long you can meditate on something you love. And the thing is, in quarantine, you have the time. So, go ahead and embrace it. It keeps hope alive for freer days. Also, I have no facts to back this up, but I will swear by it, up and down. If you meditate about getting Vitamin D, your body feels like it got some Vitamin D (for at least fifteen minutes after your Cancun fantasy warmed your bedraggled synapses – you will still feel it!) So yeah, warm those senses! It's fantastic, and I highly suggest trying it.

Cognitive Coffee Beans: Control What You Can - Even Smells

Ever been to a department store counter and the salesperson convinces you to try out fragrances? Of course, you have. After one or two, you start to lose your sense of smell, so the salesperson reaches for a jug of coffee beans. You give a good whiff, and your pallet is clean - off to smell the new scent with a fresh perspective. Well, this works in quarantine too. I started to feel sluggish but quickly noticed spraying my bed pillows with lavender helped. I had pure joy and gratitude each morning as the smell of wafting coffee penetrated the air of my apartment. A Trader Joe's cinnamon broom placed outside the door was strong enough to fill the air with a clean, spicy sense of vigor. And it's not just all in my imagination. I had a physical, cognitive response. These smells cleared my mental pallet. It's a reset. Maybe five minutes, maybe twenty. It depended on the day, but it helped. Will it work for you? I can't be sure. But it's sure worth a try when you need it.

Creativity is King: Go Ahead 'n Doodle with That Wild Imagination

Janet Birkey, D. Coun., at Eastern New Mexico University, recently summarized several research studies for her students on the benefits of doodling. The long and short of it is this: scholars don't yet agree. But I can tell you, it is something to do. And I don't mean that dismissively. In COVID, you need a challenge and something to put your mind on. Isolation makes us feel useless, but planned mental activities help. I found that structured doodling was more satisfying than forcing myself to doodle a creative masterpiece from free-form thought. That caused stress. While planned doodling did the opposite, it relieved stress. This is consistent with the research Birkey presented. The best cognitive outcomes seem to apply to those who were guided through short doodle sessions. Here was my process:

First, I used my doodles to organize my roles and responsibilities. I started drawing out the month's list of assignments I have due for grad school. Then, I began drawing trees of ideas for my thesis. The trees would ignite a thought, and it would lead to another idea. And off I went. Suddenly, I remembered when I loved art, had time to create it, and regularly planned artistic projects for my home. I'm a week or so out of quarantine now, and I can promise you, some of the ideas I generated while doodling are not appetizing in the real world. For example, the seamstress doodles I created of the clothes that I might hem instead of bringing to the dry cleaner was fun, but for the betterment of my lovely wardrobe, I'm not actually going to take up sewing. My 1950s McCall-style doodles are quite impressive, though, and they provided just enough brain challenge to drive me through to another day. More importantly, doodling helped center my consciousness around sets of skills I had forgotten about, and this process enhanced organized attention in an otherwise chaotic situation.

We won't always live in a pandemic world where isolation and self-quarantines are the norms, but these suggestions will never lose their merit. In fact, in our pre-covid days, the world was faster, highly multi-tasked, and overly layered with social events and intrapersonal complications. Tired parents, students, and workers often need a reset to boost their energies through the monotonous grinding of long days, deadlines, and packed calendars. The use of smells to naturally charge your stamina, Meditation to lift a dull mood, creativity to ward-off burnout, and doodling to streamline competing trains of cognitive thought will still be valuable tools to take with us into our new normal in the days ahead.

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