Brain fog scrambles your thoughts, affects your ability, mixes you up and casts you down. It may even make you alarmed, if you’re inclined think it is a symptom of something very serious. Before you leap to conclusions, says psychologist and neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan, try these simple fixes …
Brain fog is a collection of symptoms which give rise to loss of mental clarity or foggy thinking. When you have brain fog your symptoms are persistent, occur regularly and interfere with the quality of your life, your relationships and your work. People affected by brain fog experience slowed thinking, problems concentrating and have difficulty focusing their attention. They may also have trouble with remembering, learning new things and can experience language issues such as difficulty finding the right word. Having lived through brain fog myself I understand what a challenge it can be. I know what it’s like to worry that your symptoms might be the consequence of a life-threatening brain tumour or an early sign of dementia. I understand how difficult it may feel to voice these concerns and how you might want to hide symptoms and hope that no one else notices.
With a few notable exceptions, the good news is that brain fog can easily be reversed and eliminated. I firmly believe that knowledge is power and I know that it is possible to change your future for the better when you harness the power of brain health.
KNOW WHEN TO RESIST
It is important to know when your enemy is stronger than you. Resist the temptation to keep on pushing through severe brain fog. When your brain fog is intense, or is accompanied by exhaustion or mental fatigue, acknowledge that and accept your limits. Stop what you are doing. Take time out. Rest, take a nap or go for a walk.
KNOW WHEN TO RELAX
Relaxing means different things to different people. Some people find sitting doing nothing wonderfully relaxing. Some find the physical labour of gardening, decorating or spring cleaning incredibly relaxing but for some that’s just hard work. The important thing is to do something that is unaffected by brain fog that makes you feel relaxed. If you are under pressure or working to a deadline, resist the temptation to work late. Do something that makes you laugh and have an early night. You may well find that in the morning the solution will come to you. Alternatively, just let your brain idle. And don’t underestimate the restorative power of daydreaming.
WORK WITH YOUR NATURAL RHYTHM
Most of us operate within day-to-day routines that have been imposed on us for consistency and social order, such as being at work by 9am. These habitual behaviours can often be out of sync with our natural bodily rhythms. Actively try to pay attention to your body to see if you can tap into its natural rhythm. Are you most alert in the morning? Do you feel sleepy after lunch? Do you have your best ideas in the evening or the morning? Diarise tasks that you find more difficult at times of the day when you have the most energy, feel most alert, and are less likely to be tired or distracted.
Becoming aerobically fit will help to strengthen your heart and lungs, allowing your body to pump more blood, containing oxygen and nutrients, to your brain. Aerobic exercise will also help you to sleep better, boost your mood and ease depression and anxiety – all of which can contribute to making your brain fog worse.
DECLUTTER YOUR BRAIN
Get as much information as you can out of your brain and onto paper or electronic devices. Clearing the clutter in your brain will free up much-needed cognitive resources. Writing down the stuff you are struggling with will make some room for you to think more clearly, especially if you are struggling with working memory, which involves manipulating information in your head.
Brain fog can impair organisational skills. Use an online calendar, a diary or wall planner to keep track of obligations. Set up a filing system for important documents. Be disciplined about using whichever method you choose. It might be best to do this when you are symptom-free or when your symptoms are mild. Alternatively, get someone to help you to put systems in place. Once the initial organisation is complete, living with brain fog will be smoother and less stressful. Consider setting up automatic payment plans for bills. You could also create a regular weekly schedule. For example, at home you could have a set day for laundry, one for shopping, one for paying bills, etc. Your brain likes regularity and will soon fall into doing these tasks in a habitual way. Make use of apps and devices like Amazon Echo or Echo Dot.
BE A LIST MAKER
Lists are a fantastic way to free up brain resources, reduce stress and help you to continue to be productive despite living with brain fog. Make checklists for multi-step tasks. Check off each step as you execute it. Save the checklists on your computer or phone. If you prefer, you can make laminated hard copies and use a whiteboard marker to check off each step before wiping it clean for use the next time. Or use pen and paper, a spreadsheet or apps designed for the purpose. Be realistic about what you can achieve. We frequently underestimate how long a task will take. Add a little extra to your estimates to avoid feeling like you are failing or chasing your tail all the time.
USE YOUR FRIENDS OR LOSE THEM
Brain fog can make us behave in out-of-character ways. If your ability to inhibit your speech is impaired you are at risk of saying things that you otherwise might not. If you notice that you have become more impulsive than you have been in the past, it might be worth recruiting friends and loved ones to help you to wait before responding to a comment that has annoyed or triggered you. Do that annoying thing my mother always told me to do as a teen – count to ten. Those ten seconds, or however long it takes to engage your frontal lobes, can help you override the immediate impulsive response that might mean you lose friends or get into trouble.
When you try to do two tasks at the same time, like talking to someone while texting a friend, you might think that you are multi-tasking, but your brain isn’t splitting its attention equally between the two tasks at once. Focus on one thing at a time. Attention is a limited resource. Where possible, avoid spreading it too thinly across multiple tasks. Doing one thing at a time will feel less stressful. You will be less likely to make mistakes and less likely to feel stressed or overwhelmed.
From Beating Brain Fog by Dr Sabina Brennan (Hachette), out now.
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