- Brain fog is when you can’t focus or remember details
- It is not a medical condition, but is instead a cluster of symptoms that can impact your ability to think clearly
- It’s normally temporary and harmless, however, it can exacerbate the symptoms of anxiety or depression
- Early studies suggest that the symptoms and causes of brain in older people can accelerate their natural neurological decline
- It’s your brain’s way of telling you to slow down and take a break before burnout occurs
- It may be on the rise due to the monotony of lockdown and lack of new stimuli
- Prevention: Mindful stimulation such as puzzles, walks and baking and setting clear times for breaks are some ways to prevent brain fog
Ever walked into a room and instantly forgot why? What about when you try to remember what day you did something or what you ate for lunch yesterday?
For a lot of us over the course of the past year especially, the days have started to roll into one homogenous mass, making it hard to pinpoint when we did certain things or what we did on specific occasions.
When this happens we might shrug it off as our memory playing tricks on us, a sign of us getting older – we pass it off as a “senior moment.” But does brain fog run deeper than that?
What Is It?
In layman’s terms, brain fog is when you can’t focus or recall details as well as usual. You might feel confused, disorganised, inattentive or fuzzy. Your cognitive skills feel off. This state is normally temporary, which is why we might pass it off as just lapses in concentration and cope by trying to dig in and concentrate harder or retrace our steps to find answers, but during lockdowns, this state is becoming more prevalent for many people of all ages.
Brain fog is a term that’s started cropping up more and more often of late, largely because of its relationship to the monotony and predictability of lockdown life.
When we’re doing the same thing, in the same place every day, our brain doesn’t really have to concentrate on the task at hand. Your brain goes on autopilot because there is nothing challenging it to think in new or creative ways. It’s used to these activities, it knows how it works, there aren’t any surprises creeping around the corner, so it stops paying attention.
Think about your memory as a library with limited shelves – you can’t store absolutely everything in your long term memory, or hippocampus, to call on at a later date. That’s why your brain flags interesting or novel things and commits them to memory – anything out of the ordinary or anything that breaks the monotony, stick a flag in it and it’ll go in your hippocampus.
So, if nothing noteworthy happens, our brain simply doesn’t give it the time of day – it doesn’t stick a flag in it. This is why we struggle to remember what we did a couple of days ago or when we did a particular work task.
This isn’t something to panic about. Normally, brain fog is temporary and harmless, and it affects all of us. After all, we can’t constantly be doing exceptional, out of the ordinary things, otherwise we wouldn’t cover the basics of washing, dressing, making a cuppa and calling an old friend. Life isn’t all bungee jumps and first dates.
Why Is Brain Fog On The Rise?
That being said, the fact that we’re becoming increasingly aware of the term “Brain Fog” says that it’s on the rise – people like you and I are noticing it happening more frequently.
Why is that? Well, it’s probably due to a couple of different factors.
Firstly, the majority of people have been stuck at home working, living, homeschooling and relaxing all in the same surroundings with the same people.
We’re doing the exact same stuff in the same places every day. We’re on Zoom calls that we start to tune out of, we go on walks with similar routes, making for a very predictable pattern. We aren’t able to see new faces, scenery or experiences. This impacts the levels of our brain chemicals such as dopamine, which is released when your brain expects a reward and/or when you anticipate a certain activity that you associate with pleasure.
The sameness of our lockdown lives means that we aren’t experiencing those usual day to day senses of excitement, achievement or reward, because we can’t go anywhere or do anything. The lack of novelty and interesting experiences means that our brain releases less dopamine, leading to this fuzzy, sluggish brain feeling.
The past year has been stressful for a lot of us, so the emphasis has been getting through it all by looking after ourselves, keeping calm and finding ways to pass the time.
Whilst in earlier lockdowns, people were taking the opportunity to learn new things such as baking (banana bread), a new language or a unique hobby (making paper anyone?), as the months have rolled on, we’ve lost some of that motivation and energy and have found that just surviving is the way to go. The sad truth? Bingeing Netflix day after day isn’t conducive to brain stimulation.
As a result, your brain might have tried to boost your dopamine levels by seeking out or engaging in novelty, extreme or impulsive experiences, such as starting arguments with people around you or going on an online shopping spending spree.
Another factor related to the rise and prevalence of brain fog is the enforced lack of social contact . Simply put, other people are powerful stimuli, especially when they’re right in front of you, not on a video call. Humans are social animals and we enjoy in-person contact as it forces us to be present. You have to respond with relevant verbal and nonverbal cues and as your brain doesn’t know what the other person is going to say or do next, it concentrates, it’s engaged and eager to respond.
Even the alternative of video calls hasn’t fully filled our human contact stimulation void. It’s just not the same as being in person. On a video chat, we’re not fully absorbed in what the other person is doing, we’re checking how we look in the corner camera, we’re messing with microphone settings or focusing on blurry or out of sync visuals. All these factors mean we struggle to concentrate fully: a key marker of brain fog. Especially when we’re having daily meetings where nothing much changes, all the calls can all roll into one, regardless of whether or not your manager is wearing a different coloured turtle neck or your boss has changed their background picture to the Bahamas.
Stimulation drives our brain and our memory, so when we’re stuck in a rut of under-stimulation, our focus and memory are going to suffer as a consequence.
The good news? Even a small bit of stimulation can go a long way. Experts suggest that walking whilst listening to podcasts allows listeners to better remember and focus on the content as their brain is extra stimulated: by both the podcast and the changing landscape around them. This effect is even stronger if something unusual or humorous happens. Think about it, would you have remembered that BBC interview if the interviewee’s toddler hadn’t burst into his study, quickly followed by his bouncing baby in a walker, followed by his wife dragging them back out? Probably not. But that unusual event piqued our brain’s interest and we remember that interviewing happening – even if we don’t remember what it was about.
This kind of stimulation is fundamentally what we’ve been lacking of late and, because of this, people have been noticing a rise in instances of brain fog.
Is It A Proper Problem?
So, if it’s temporary, is this really something that we should be concerned about? Well, yes and no.
Once we return to some level of normality, for example traveling outside of our house for work, interacting with others socially, doing different things on the weekends, we’ll be stimulated again so we should notice our brain fog begin to lift.
However, where it does start to become a problem is when this sluggishness begins to adversely affect our mental health, potentially leading to an increase in anxiety or depression.
It can also be really concerning when we repeatedly forget things, causing undue panic or anxiety. We want to trust our brains, so when we struggle to recall things or events that happened recently, it can be easy to spiral down the rabbit hole of “what is wrong with me”. A word to the wise – WebMD is never the answer…
Increased brain fog can also be a cause for concern for any of us over 65. We know that neurological decline is already associated with this age group and research is looking into whether increased levels of brain fog speeds this up. A lack of stimulation in this age group is suspected to be key to this. This is why such a focus is put on socialising for retirees and things like doing a daily crossword or sudoku puzzle – all this helps to hone and improve focus and concentration, and keep brain fog at bay.
Another problem is that when we have issues focusing, our productivity drops and it can lead to a feeling of lacking achievement as well as anxiety over how much work we have or have not completed. This, combined with comparison culture driven by social media, creates the perfect storm for feeling not feeling good enough or feeling less than.
When these feelings arise, the default position humans normally take is to withdraw into ourselves. Especially during lockdown, it’s easier to isolate yourself and cut off communication with loved ones. However, ironically, the very coping mechanism we use is exactly the under-this is not the stimulating environment that we know produces brain fog in the first place! Therefore, this exacerbates the problem and begins to reinforce the negative beliefs at play here.
What Can You Do About It?
Your brain is really good at sending you alarm bells to signal that something is wrong or that you’re pushing yourself too far.
Brain fog is one of these signals. It tells us that either:
- You’ve already been trying to concentrate on something for too long and your brain can’t take in any more information, or
- That your brain is bored, it needs something interesting to focus on or
- Your brain is tired and overwhelmed and it needs a break and rest
So, think about brain fog as your brain looking after itself before you fully burnout. It’s your brain telling you that you’ve had enough. All you need to do is listen.
It’s like when you’re working on a laptop and you don’t realise how long you’ve been staring at the screen until suddenly your brain goes blank. That’s your brain making the fog descend so that you take a break and look after yourself.
So, what should you do about it?
First of all, the opposite of brain fog is flow state, a mental state where you are completely immersed in an activity.
Identified by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow state allows you to experience a feeling of energised focus where you feel so fully engaged with what you’re doing that you lose perception of time. In this state, you feel challenged but not overwhelmed and enjoy the activity. You may have described this flow state before yourself as “being in the zone.”
Flow state is linked to our Task Positive Network (TPN), the network of the brain that is activated when we are actively paying attention to something. The TPN is associated with being mindful and present and we’re often much happier when it’s engaged.
The key to doing this is taking part in activities you enjoy!
It’s all about stimulating our brain so that it doesn’t slip into this sluggish state. Whether that’s getting out for a change of scenery, moving around the room, or simply taking a break.
This is why mindfulness and “slow” activities such as baking, yoga, reading and drawing are useful when trying to reduce stress and anxiety. You can be stimulated in a way that isn’t overwhelming for your brain, and you can partake in these activities in short bursts.
Being mindful is key here – overstimulation is a problem in modern society with constant pings from smartphones and laptops – so it’s about stimulating your brain by focusing on one task at a time for short periods of time, and scheduling breaks for longer projects. It’s important to remember that whilst it might feel counterintuitive to take a break when you start to feel sluggish, it’s what your brain is craving, and you need to listen.
Things To Try
When you feel the brain fog descend, take a moment and assess whether:
- Your brain needs to take a break or,
- Whether you have brain fog because you’ve been bored for a long period of time.
When it comes to either of these, a first great step to take is to do a short guided meditation.
Even 10 – 15 minutes of meditation will refresh your mind and brain and help you to move on with your day with more clarity, motivation and calm.
If you feel like your brain needs to take a break, try:
- Setting timers for breaks and stick with them
- Change where you sit in your lounge or try changing the layout of your desk
- Where possible do phone calls whilst on a walk outside, it’ll make you more likely to absorb the content of the call
- Pick a mindful hobby such as baking, drawing, cooking, yoga, reading – ideally something not involving a screen – to spend time doing outside of work
- Rest for 10 – 15 minutes by sitting or lying quietly, in silence or with relaxing music playing
- Have a relaxing bath
If it’s the second, try the getting into the Flow State with these suggestions:
- The activity you choose could be a physical one (such as playing an instrument or dancing) or a mental one (such as puzzles or reading).
- Learning something new is extremely fulfilling and interesting. So, watch a documentary on a topic that interests you, learn 4 words in a different language or research something on the internet that you’ve always wondered about.
- Listen to an interesting podcast or audiobook – you can do this while also doing another activity, such as drawing or baking.
Remember, whatever you try, being mindful is key, so whatever activity you choose keep this in mind, and feel that sluggish, boring brain fog feeling melt away!