Rashmi Parmar, M.D. and Leela Magavi, M.D., psychiatrists at Mindpath Health, formerly Community Psychiatry, explain what causes brain fog and how to cope.
After the very stressful year that was 2020, you might have experienced moments where you felt extremely tired, sluggish, forgetful, unable to concentrate, and even confused. If this sounds familiar, we’re here to tell you that no, it’s not because you’re lazy, but instead, you might have experienced brain fog. Brain fog is a very real and common concern that describes a range of those feelings and can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few years. While it isn’t a medical condition in itself, it can be a sign of an underlying issue.
The good news is, there are things you can do to help bring some mental clarity and combat brain fog. Below, we spoke with three mental health experts to discuss exactly what brain fog is, what its causes are, and how grounding techniques can help you cope.
What is brain fog?
“Brain fog is a common term used to describe feelings of forgetfulness, lack of focus, and confusion,” says Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist. Experiencing brain fog is fairly common, and as said before, it isn’t defined as a medical condition but instead as a side effect due to another underlying cause or condition. Dr. Hafeez explains that brain fog symptoms can include feeling tired, disoriented or distracted; forgetting about a task at hand; taking longer than usual to complete a task; and experiencing headaches, memory problems, and lack of mental clarity.
What causes brain fog?
There can be many causes of brain fog. Some of the most common are anxiety, lack of sleep, stress, and hormonal changes.
Dr. Hafeez explains that when you are experiencing anxiety, it interferes with your ability to focus on what is going on in the present moment. Our working memory, she says—what allows us to store new information without losing track of what we’re doing—”is affected by anxiety because more cognitive energy is devoted to anxiety instead of the working memory.” Basically, when you’re mentally exhausted, your memory suffers.
Similarly, when you don’t get enough sleep, your ability to make memories is compromised. “During NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep, the brain filters important memories,” says Dr. Hafeez. “REM (rapid eye movement) sleep allows the memories to become concrete and plays a role in memory consolidation.” When you don’t get a full six to eight hours of sleep every night, your brain’s ability to consolidate memories is affected, resulting in forgetfulness, confusion, and other symptoms of brain fog.
Stress also plays a role. “Elevated cortisol levels are associated with poor cognitive functioning and impaired memory, which cause brain fog,” says Dr. Rashmi Parmar, an adult and child psychiatrist at Mindpath Health. “Research indicates that burnout and chronic stress could potentially stimulate and enlarge the amygdala (the fear center of the brain), thin the prefrontal cortex, which is used during cognitive functioning, and weaken the connections in the brain that are responsible for memory and creativity,” adds Dr. Leela R. Magavi, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Mindpath Health.
Along with its negative impacts on mental health, brain fog can also be affected by physical changes in your body. For example, hormonal changes, such as menopause or pregnancy, can impair concentration and memory. “Estrogen levels contribute to memory and other brain processes, and when estrogen levels change, occasional lapses in the brain can occur,” says Dr. Hafeez.
What’s the difference between brain fog and COVID-19 brain fog?
Since the start of the pandemic, you might have heard about COVID-19 brain fog. “Brain fog and COVID-19 brain fog affect a person’s mental clarity the same way, but the causes are different,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Traditional brain fog is likely the result of other medical conditions whereas COVID-19 brain fog is direct mental fuzziness due to lingering effects of coronavirus on the brain.”
Dr. Magavi adds that the term is also used to describe people who have experienced brain fog as a general result of the pandemic and quarantine, but it may resolve when the world resumes normalcy. The biggest way to differentiate the cause of your brain fog is taking note of when it started. If it seems like it is due to COVID-19, Dr. Parmar says it will likely be accompanied by other key symptoms associated with the virus like loss of taste and smell, headaches, fevers, and trouble breathing.
How do you get rid of brain fog?
Dr. Parmar explains that getting rid of brain fog depends on the underlying causes and your access to care. Focusing on lifestyle changes like eating a balanced, healthy diet (Dr. Hafeez recommends foods high in omega-3’s to increase mental clarity), getting enough sleep, doing regular exercise, and prioritizing self-care can help reduce stress and improve your overall mental state.
However, if the cause of your brain fog is a medical condition like anxiety, it’s recommended to seek help from a psychiatrist or therapist. But because finding a mental health professional isn’t easy, rest assured there are some grounding techniques you can start doing today to cope.
Activities such as yoga, meditation, practicing mindfulness, and stretching are all useful tools that can help self-soothe and ground you. “Meditation allows individuals with brain fog to gain clarity, practice self-compassion, and experience catharsis through mindfulness and breath,” says Dr. Magavi.
Doing frequent check-ins with yourself and body scans can also help you identify what’s causing your brain fog and address the underlying cause. For example, Dr. Parmar says, “you may be hungry or may need some water and hydration to rejuvenate yourself or there may be a pending task or upcoming project adding to your stress level. Once you identify the source, try to correct it, if it is something within your control.”
One of Dr. Parmar’s favorite techniques to help combat brain fog is the four-step “STOP” method that helps promote mindfulness. “It is a great way to defuse stress in the moment, replenish your energy and creativity stores, gain some perspective on the problem at hand, and determine the best possible action you can take next,” she says. It includes the following steps:
S– Stop or pause for a moment no matter what you’re doing.
T– Take a few deep breaths and try to bring yourself to the present moment.
O– Observe and acknowledge your inner feelings, bodily sensations as well as things going on in the outside environment around you. Make a quick attempt to understand why you might be feeling this way. Just take a note.
P– Proceed with your task after having checked in with the present moment, incorporating the knowledge you gained from observing yourself.
So, the next time you’re feeling symptoms of brain fog, remember to check in with yourself, breathe, and do something, like meditation or the “STOP” method, to help bring you back to the present moment. However, if your mental clarity is not improving despite your attempts to combat brain fog, Dr. Hafeez recommends reaching out to a medical professional for further testing and treatment.
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