Brain fog is something that many of us deal with day in, day out. It’s not a diagnosable condition but is a common symptom for many different illnesses. Brain fog can range from being an occasional annoyance to a persistent condition which impacts many areas of our lives.
What Causes Brain Fog?
There are lots of potential causes for brain fog.
There are some diagnosable conditions which are known to increase our likelihood of having a foggy brain. These include, but aren’t limited to, depression, anxiety, chronic migraines, ME, and chronic pain.
In some cases, brain fog is a side effect of medication. Although this can be frustrating, it’s important to talk to our prescriber before adjusting our dose in any way. Sometimes we have to make difficult decisions when weighing up side effects vs benefits.
Some lifestyle factors such as stress, fatigue, diet, activity levels, and occupation can contribute to or exacerbate brain fog. This doesn’t mean that brain fog is our fault, but understanding the links between our physical and mental health can help us to manage our symptoms.
How Long Does Brain Fog Last?
Brain fog can occur on a spectrum.
Some of us might experience occasional foggy brain days whereas others might live with it day in, day out. If our foggy brain is caused by a new medication, we might find that it wears off as our body becomes accustomed to it.
We’re all different; our symptoms will always vary.
What Does Brain Fog Feel Like?
Brain fog can, quite literally, feel like wading through fog. We might be unable to see or read our thoughts properly; they’re there, but they’re fuzzy and we can’t grab hold of them. When trying to think, layers of fuzzy grey block our ability to connect ideas or think clearly.
It can feel like we’re experiencing the world through a piece of gauze. We might feel disorientated and dizzy. Just like getting lost in the middle of a foggy field without a watch, we can get lost in our head for unknown amounts of time.
Emotions Associated With Brain Fog
Brain fog can stir up a whole range of emotions.
Sometimes we feel apathetic towards it. We’re tired, we can’t think, and we just want to sleep.
More commonly, it can leave us feeling confused and frustrated. Unable to connect ideas or think things through, the world can often feel illogical and almost threatening. The embarrassment of forgetting things or struggling to answer questions can amplify our frustration and convince us that we need to isolate ourselves from our loved ones.
Being unable to remember whether we’ve taken our medication, or to think clearly enough to work out how to run the washing machine can feel scary. It’s often difficult to attend to our basic needs, leaving us feeling stuck and frightened and embarrassed.
If we forget something important or have to rely on someone else to help us out, then we might feel guilty. Though, logically, we know that we did our best to remember and that we deserve help and support, it’s hard to get the ‘guilty’ feeling to go away.
We might start to feel useless, stupid, and a waste of space. This can set us on a downwards spiral towards low mood and hopelessness.
What Else Does Brain Fog Impact?
It can affect our language and ability to speak. We might find that we take longer to process things, so we’re much slower to answer questions and struggle to keep track of conversations. Sometimes when we’re talking we forget the odd word or forget what we’re saying altogether, mid-sentence.
We might struggle to read or watching things. With brain fog impacting both our concentration and memory, following a storyline can be incredibly difficult, to the point where we often give up. Having familiar programmes on in the background or re-reading books we’ve read before can work well because we know the storyline, so it doesn’t matter as much if we zone in and out or forget things.
Because brain fog negatively impacts our memory, we might forget where we put things. This is compounded by the fact that our concentration is poor, so we often get distracted mid-task. When we’re distracted, we’re more likely to leave things in illogical places and our poor memory makes it hard to re-trace our steps. We can end up finding things in all sorts of strange locations. Sometimes it’s frustrating, and sometimes we see the funny side of it.
Brain Fog And Safety
Foggy brain days can make some tasks dangerous.
Cooking is an example of this. Zoning in and out, struggling to link multiple steps together and frequently forgetting things can make cooking unsafe. Losing concentrating and focus when chopping up vegetables, for example, could result in accidentally cutting our finger. Forgetting that we’ve put something in the oven or on the stove can result in a smoke alarm blaring. Even microwaving isn’t straightforward. If we forget to remove a metal fork from whatever it is we’ve been stirring before microwaving it then we might find that we have a small firework display in our kitchen.
Cooking isn’t the only area of life that can be unsafe when our brain is foggy. Shaving can be dangerous if we lose concentration. Driving isn’t safe. Any action that requires concentration, focus, or multi-tasking could be affected.
Everything Takes Longer
Absolutely everything we try to do can take longer.
If we can’t remember whether or not we’ve done something, then we might do it twice. So it takes twice as long. For example, we might be in the shower and forget whether or not we’ve already shampooed our hair, so we end up doing it again, and possibly even again.
Sometimes we have to keep going backwards and forwards because we forget where what we’re doing. For example, we might be gardening and need a trowel. So off we pop to the shed. But once we get there, we’re unable to remember why we made the journey, so we pootle back to where we were, remember what we needed, head back to the shed, forget again, walk back to where we were… and carry on in a similar way whenever we need something.
Our processing speed could be much slower than we’re used to. When driving through fog, we usually reduce our speed. It doesn’t take long for traffic to build up, slowing us down further. Our thoughts are similar. On fog-free days, they can zip around our mind with relative ease. But when the fog appears, not only does each thought take longer to move through our mind, but because everything’s so much slower, a traffic jam of ‘thoughts still to process’ builds up. Everything takes ages.
Education and Employment
Brain fog can affect our ability to study or work.
We might love studying or our job, but brain fog steals our ability to focus properly. If we’re struggling to concentrate, forget things, find it hard to link ideas together, and are generally can’t think, then it’s going to make our work or study a whole lot harder.
Because everything takes longer, we might start trying to catch up with our work on evenings or weekends. This eats into our downtime, which can exacerbate our brain fog. It’s a vicious circle.
If this our brain fog lasts for a while then we might have to reduce the number of hours that we work or study each week. This could impact our finances.
Losing, or being unable to engage with, the things we love can be upsetting, and we’re allowed to feel that. Having brain fog isn’t nice, it can make us feel awful for all sorts of reasons, and it’s okay to acknowledge that.
Things That Can Help: Physical Health
Looking after our physical health can sometimes help to reduce brain fog. When our body says rest, we need to rest. Eating a varied diet (where possible) gives our body the nutrients it needs to work as well as possible. Drinking enough water is a big one; dehydration can make our brain fog much worse. Getting enough sleep (as well as resting!) can also be key.
Learning to be patient with ourselves can be a steep learning curve. But we’re allowed to take things slowly. We deserve the patience that we so readily offer to others.
In listening to our body, we might discover that certain things trigger brain-foggy days. For example, we might be particularly affected when tired, and notice that if we don’t get a minimum of 8 hours sleep a night, then we spend the next day lost in a fog. Identifying triggers gives us a chance to avoid them where possible.
If our brain fog becomes persistent, it can be helpful to speak to our GP who might rule out any possible physical causes.
Things That Can Help: Prompts
When we write things down, we don’t have to remember them. Lists, reminders and prompts can all be useful.
Phone lists and reminders can be synced with other devices allowing us to access them wherever we are. We can also set them to ping up at a certain date or time.
Using a diary or calendar can help us with remembering longer-term things. If our diary or calendar is electronic, we should be able to set it to pop up with live reminders.
As well as electronic reminders, paper-based reminders also have their place. The advantage of non-electronic reminders is that we can put them in specific locations. For example, if we regularly forget to feed the cat, then we could stick a post-it next to the kettle to remind us to do it each morning.
Things That Can Help: Coping With Tasks
We often have very high expectations of ourselves, and lowering these expectations can be the first step in managing them. For example, maybe we don’t have the brain clarity to cook a spectacular evening meal, so we use a ready-made jar of pasta sauce and heat up some pasta. It’s not going to win any culinary awards, but it’s warm, balanced (especially if we chuck some protein in), and we’ve eaten. It’s all good.
Breaking tasks into smaller parts (and crucially, writing those parts down and ticking them off when we’ve done them) can help us to process tasks externally rather than trying to think them through in our head.
Speaking out loud is another way to process things externally. It might sound strange, but it’s actually something that many of us will have done with small children or pets without noticing. A conversation like this could sound familiar: “we’re going to eat lunch, then we’ll get ready to go out because we’re going to walk into town this afternoon to meet Auntie Julia! We’ll meet her at the coffee shop, and after that, we need to nip into the hardware store on the way home.”.
Thinking out loud or on paper means that we don’t have to try and process our thoughts through the cloud of fog in our head.
When our brain fog is thick and heavy and we’re not getting anywhere with the task we’re doing, we sometimes have to accept that it’s a bad day, and stop.
Things That Can Help: Around The House
If we struggle to remember whether or not we’ve taken our medication, then dossette boxes can be great. By counting our medication out in advance, we can see whether we’ve taken it or not which can stop us from accidentally double dosing and allow us to quickly and easily see whether we’ve remembered to take it.
There are all sorts of distractions – be it a clock ticking, our phone lighting up, or something else. Reducing distractions can help us to focus and concentrate. Noise-cancelling headphones, putting our phone out of sight, blocking social media apps, setting ourselves up with our back to the window, shutting the curtains, putting a note on the door asking people not to come in – all of these things can help to remove distractions from the world around us.
Having ‘homes’ for things we own can help us to find them even when our memory is affected. This can also help to avoid having lots of clutter around, which is a bonus because clutter can be really distracting.
Things That Can Help: Organising Our Time
The word ‘no’ is an excellent tool. When the fog is getting thicker, then we need to try and reduce the demands that are placed on us. Often this means saying ‘no’. It’s not always easy, particularly to begin with, but saying ‘no’ can be incredibly freeing.
It can be tempting to try and ignore the brain fog and run, full-speed towards our various commitments. This energy spike can often lead to burnout, an even foggier brain, and time where we don’t feel able to do anything at all. Instead, trying to pace ourselves and doing a little bit each day can help us to spread out the energy required and avoid peaks and troughs.
Things That Can Help: Downtime
Coping with brain fog is really tiring, and that tiredness can make it worse, so planning in rest time, and time to sleep, can both be important.
We all have different things that we find restful and relaxing. For some, it could be a bubble bath, others find baths stressful – we’re all different! Some examples of things people find restful include yoga, meditation, mindfulness, watching mindless TV, listening to audiobooks, drawing, colouring, or playing with our pet.
Prioritising sleep can be hard, but is also essential. Tiredness exacerbates brain fog. Setting ourselves a non-negotiable bedtime, moving our evening routine earlier if needed, and going to bed before our bedtime if we’re tired, are all things that can be vital when ensuring that we get enough sleep. Though it can be hard to stick to when we first start doing it, after we’ve been doing it often becomes routine.
How Others Can Help Us
There are things that others can do to help us when brain fog crops up.
For those who live with us, we could ask them to prompt us or remind us of certain things. If we choose to have a ‘home’ for every item, then those living with us need to be aware of that so that they put things back in the same place. We might find that routine helps us; if we are very routined then it can be helpful to discuss that with those we live with.
There are some tasks that we might need a hand with. This particularly applies to those tasks that can be dangerous on brain-foggy days. For example, we know that cooking can be unsafe when we can’t think properly. If we have nothing batched to fall back on then we might need someone else in our household to cook on those days. Even better, we could ask them to cook extra portions so that we can pop them in the freezer.
We could reach out to professionals to access support. Our GP should be able to help us find out whether any physical issues are causing the fogginess (if we can’t identify a particular trigger). If we take prescribed medication, then it’s best to speak to our prescriber about any concerns we have. Mental health workers might be able to help us talk stuff through, which can also help to reduce the fogginess.
Kindness And Patience
Despite a foggy brain, most of us are still doing our best. Getting angry and frustrated with ourselves doesn’t help. In fact, it can make it worse.
We need to be kind, and patient with ourselves. We deserve gentleness, care, and support.
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