Your Brain Fog Isn‘t What You Think It Is

Even before the pandemic left us all with the renewed colloquial symptom tracking around “brain fog,” I think it’s safe to say it’s something we have all experienced at one time or another.

Perhaps you couldn’t think clearly when you were sick with the flu. Maybe you were jet-lagged and your thinking was sluggish because it felt like it was 2am at 2pm. Or perhaps you took an antihistamine that made your head feel like a balloon, disconnected and floating above your body. No matter the cause, you probably spent the entire time waiting and wanting to get “back to normal” whether that meant recovery, adjusting to a new time zone, or waiting for the side effects of the medication to wear off.

But what happens when we experience long-term “brain fog” – a feeling of fuzzy cognitive impairment that cannot be linked to illness, jet lag, medication or any other obvious culprit?

Let’s start with a simple definition of what brain fog is and isn’t: it isn’t a medical condition. According to WebMD, everyone’s favorite online, self-diagnostic tool, it’s a term used for certain symptoms that can affect your ability to think. You may feel confused or disorganized or find it hard to focus, recall known information or to simply put your thoughts into words.

Brain fog is often used as a punchline, especially for busy, multitasking moms. I have colleagues who will overlook something obvious or make a simple mistake and laughingly refer to themselves as suffering from “mommy brain.” Interestingly enough, there is some science to back this up: carrying a baby can change your body in lots of ways, and chemicals released to protect and nourish your baby may bring on memory problems (Harvard Health Review).

There are other medical reasons for experiencing the symptoms of brain fog, including sleep disorders, depression, lupus, and more, but what is really going on when you can’t seem to pinpoint any “legitimate” reason for brain fog yet you just can’t seem to shake the symptoms?

My own “legitimate” reason for brain fog came after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI), when I was rear-ended at a stoplight by a driver who wasn’t paying attention. Initially, the TBI left me feeling nauseated, light-headed, disoriented, tired, forgetful and confused – a lot. Due to the fact that this type of injury is invisible to the naked eye, the symptoms were repeatedly dismissed by both medical professionals and my family, friends and colleagues. It was just so easy for everyone to minimize and dismiss the insignificance of any one of my symptoms, even explaining them away as side effects of stress and my very busy personal and professional life (you know, the kind of life most of us are living these days!).

It took more than a year and a dozen doctor visits to figure out what was happening to me. Or what had happened to me. We discovered that not only had I suffered a traumatic brain injury, but that I was hit so hard that my skull was actually fractured and required surgery. A team of doctors and neurosurgeons were gathered and many images of my brain were taken to decide exactly how they were going to repair the fracture. It took 6 months to plan and coordinate the surgery and I spent a week immobilized in a hospital bed so the patches the doctors created could heal.

After 6 days in the hospital I was released and sent home to heal from my internal and physical wounds. However, my brain hadn’t healed and I actually struggled even more after the surgery. All the doctors could say was, “We’lll have to wait to see what happens. Some people recover in 6 months, some take 6 years and some are never the same. Only time will tell.”  I wasn’t satisfied with this – after all, I couldn’t even remember my own sister-in-law’s name (and it’s only 3 letters: A-m-y) at this time! I was frustrated and waaaaaaay too impatient to settle for only time will tell.During all of this, I was blessed with an amazing physical therapist who had experienced something similar and he recommended a Cognitive Therapist. She was able to explain what was really going on with my brain and help me to finally understand, confront and heal my own symptoms. My recovery didn’t happen overnight – and, there are days when I can say with certainty that I am still healing.

Here’s why all of this information applies to everyone who has ever experienced, or is experiencing, brain fog – even if they haven’t suffered from a TBI. The truth is that many of us suffer from symptoms of brain fog and the reasons may surprise you.

According to Good RX, common symptoms of brain fog include:

  • Difficulty with concentration: Your brain may feel fuzzy, and it may be hard to think clearly.
  • Memory loss: This can affect your short-term memory, so you might feel forgetful or be unable to remember what you were doing a moment ago.
  • Fatigue: This can show up as physical or mental fatigue.
  • Attention difficulties: Your mind may wander during conversations or drift away from the task in front of you.
  • Trouble with multitasking: Executive function describes the brain’s ability to plan and juggle multiple tasks at the same time. People with brain fog can experience trouble with this, which is known as executive dysfunction.
  • Lack of motivation: You may struggle to start tasks that would normally be easy for you.
  • Confusion: You may have trouble making sense of the world around you or feel a lack of mental clarity.
  • A feeling of fuzziness: Your head may feel fuzzy in a way that’s hard to explain. Some describe it as feeling spacey or scatterbrained.
  • Speech difficulties: Some people struggle to find words.

Like many other illnesses that are impossible to see on an x-ray, brain fog is often stigmatized as laziness, carelessness, ambivalence, or a character flaw. However, I can tell you first-hand that if you experience any of the above symptoms on a regular basis without any “legitimate” origin (like side effects from a medication or a brain injury, jet lag, etc), you may be dealing with an unbalanced energy pie (and, no, I am not about to get all woo-woo on you).

Our brains are trained to conserve energy for emergencies. When we have moments or events in our lives which require us to consume our energy reserves in an unbalanced and unreplenished way, we will experience the symptoms of brain fog. Why? Because our cognitive and emotional sectors are the easiest to steal energy from – they are the low-hanging fruit of our energy reserves. The brain was designed to protect our physical mobility at the expense of our cognitive ability every time. Until our brain is able to get ALL the rest it needs to restore the reserves, it will continue to borrow from the other sections of the pie.

There are many ways to bring your energy pie back into balance, but the main ones are SLEEP and DECREASING STRESS. Seem too simple?  Here comes the science…

Sleep is critical to the way your brain works both short term and long term. While you sleep, cerebral fluid rushes in essentially “power washing” your brain, clearing it of debris. It is during sleep that you consolidate memories so you can remember what you learned the previous day. Every day you lose brain cells, but every night you have the opportunity to create new ones — provided you are getting enough high-quality, uninterrupted sleep. Just one bad night can affect your memory, concentration, coordination, mood, judgment, and ability to handle stress the following day! According to Dr. Alexandros Vgontzas, director of the Penn State Hershey Sleep Research and Treatment Center, losing one night of sleep affects your mental performance as much as being legally drunk. Getting adequate sleep can go a long way towards curing many cases of brain fog.

Stress has become an unfortunate “badge of honor” in our society. It is wrongly equated with being productive and successful. However, being stressed puts you at a greater risk for every major disease you can think of, including brain diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Chronic stress can lead to anxiety, depression, poor decision making, insomnia, memory loss, and of course, brain fog. Cortisol is the hormone released when you’re stressed, and it’s just fine in small amounts. But, too much of the stress hormone can interfere leads to a surplus of free radicals — unattached oxygen molecules — that damage brain cell membranes. When the brain cell membranes are damaged, this causes them to lose function and die. Cortisol interferes with the formation of new brain cells, meaning stress causes brain cells to prematurely “commit suicide” before they’re fully developed.

Here is the main takeaway I want you to have from this article: if you experience frequent, “unexplained” brain fog, it is not a character flaw! You are not lazy, unmotivated, unambitious, confused, ambivalent or even struggling with “mommy-brain” – you are tired. And stressed. You don’t need to beat yourself up (and certainly don’t let others do it!) or feel bad about yourself. You need to take a much-needed time out. You need sleep. You need rest. Maybe you even need to evaluate the true value of work-life balance. Regardless of the cause, please give yourself permission to heal your energy pie so that you are able to be the most productive, engaged, and clear-thinking version of yourself possible.

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