As colleagues and peers know, I’m in a Doctorate of Behavioral Health program. My quest for learning is insatiable, especially in a curriculum focused on integrated care, medical literacy, leadership, healthcare quality, and entrepreneurship. Amid my zest to gain knowledge, my brain and I can be at odds. This precious organ periodically reminds me it will only absorb so much information. My critical-thinking is challenged by episodes of brain fog: a collection of symptoms impacting the ability to think, such as distraction, memory lapses, word-finding, and utter frustration.
Activities that would previously take me 30 minutes, took hours. Anxiety kicked in, then rapidly escalated. I worried my brain fog was caused by a medical condition. At times, I thought it was due to being a post-menopausal women on a rigorous academic journey. Instead, I learned there was another explanation. I was among a new generation of persons dealing with the condition. Brain fog has become a common occurrence across age groups, impacting hundreds of millions of persons around the globe.
Brain Fog More Norm Than Exception
A variety of medical conditions are associated with brain fog (e.g., anemia, autoimmune disorders, COVID, diabetes, migraines, pregnancy), as well as stress. In fact, brain fog and stress are in a synergistic dance. We become easily overwhelmed by daily tasks. We struggle to remember the name of the last movie we watched, our beloved actor, favorite restaurant, or just the last thing we ate. Studies have addressed the traumatic impact of the recent waves of chronic, pandemic-related stress on populations: fear of virus transmission and personal/family safety, grief and loss, job and economic security, increased isolation, profound fatigue. Simultaneously occurring societal tensions have meant an added psychological hit for the population.
Stress and the Brain
Prolonged stress and associated allostatic overload amplify cortisol production. This can lead to behavioral health manifestations, such as anxiety, depression, and insomnia. It can also exacerbate co-occurring chronic illnesses (e.g., asthma, cardiac issues, diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis). Our pre-frontal cortex is in peril, as continuous stress impacts the ability to engage in mental calisthenics necessary for normal cognition. Carry-over of new learning, concentration, focus, and memory are all at risk. We become stressed about being stressed, which sends us spiraling further. Neural plasticity falters as the brain loses its ability to rewire itself. Fear reigns as we worry brain cells are leaking out faster than they can ever regenerate!
Take Control to Bust the Block
Managing our stress is key to busting brain fog! Here are 12 ways to bust those brain blocks:
- Breathe: 4,7,8 breathing is a must: breath in for 4 seconds, hold the breath for 7 seconds, then exhale for 8 seconds. It can be done anywhere, anytime, and any frequency. 4 cycles work, 3 times a day works wonders.
- Take a break: We can become too committed to finishing tasks at any expense, even if our brains don’t wish to cooperate. This floods our system with stress and cortisol. Even a brief break will enhance your efforts to regroup and refocus.
- Exercise: Physical activity increases blood flow, brain activity, and motivation.
- Get rest: Good sleep hygiene, promotes restful sleep, which is a priority. The Sleep Foundation has a lengthy list of easy ways to achieve this goal.
- Monitor your diet: Hydrate, nourish, rinse, repeat. Also, watch caffeine and spicy-food intake, particularly late at night or close to bedtime.
- Engage in at least one peer interaction daily: Don’t let too much time go by without a quick text or meet-up with friends. They enhance your spirit!
- Monitor internet and social media use: ‘Doom-scrolling’ is an energy-drainer, so set limits on social media use!
- Engage in one positive activity daily: What one thing do you engage in daily that is energy replenishing versus depleting? Cooking, gardening, meditation, journaling, taking a drive with the music blaring, or solo dance parties are all considerations.
- Set limits and SAY NO: Toss those tasks that stress you out. Ask for extensions of deliverables. These actions ease those pressures on you!
- Give yourself grace: Accept that you may not get a task done when you want: Ease the stress by taking 10, whether seconds, minutes, or hours. Give your brain permission to stop. This allows you time to regenerate, restore brain activity, and ready yourself for other cognitive conquests to come.
- Be the master of one versus none: We all multi-task and simultaneously juggle activities, yet there are limits. Even the highest functioning brains hit a wall! Instead, take charge by approaching activities one by one. This relieves those internal and external pressures, while reducing your cortisol levels.
- Seek support: It is easy to isolate, but don’t give in! Reach out to friends and family, but also behavioral health professionals, as needed. Use employee assistance programs (EAP), organizational and community therapy resources, whether in-person or virtual.
***This blog post is not meant to replace a medical evaluation. Scheduling an evaluation with a trusted primary care provider may be your first step!
RELAX, REPLENISH, RECHARGE, RENEW, then REFOCUS to RESTORE YOUR RESILIENCE!
Get going! What are you waiting for?
I’ll look forward to seeing what other suggestions you have to bust brain fog; add them in the comments space below!