Brain Fog Is A Real Thing
Prolonged stress and chronic fight-or-flight state can override our ability to focus
(This article is edited from it’s original form here)
Are you struggling to tackle simple projects or feel like it’s hard to organize your thoughts?
Do you open your laptop and wonder, “where do I start”?
If yes, then you could be one of the millions experiencing “brain fog” – a byproduct of chronic stress that has dramatically increased over the past year.
Other symptoms of brain fog include:
- Constantly searching for your words.
- Difficulty making up your mind and making small decisions becomes a big deal.
- Quickly losing your focus – you go to the fridge for milk but, when you get there, wonder why you’re standing in front of an open fridge.
Brain fog can also make you feel extremely mentally fatigued, which reduces productivity. Take, for example, something you used to do, something that was a simple part of your day and easy to accomplish. Now, it suddenly feels exhausting.
For me, tidying the kitchen has become a Herculean task. I mean, it’s a task few of us actively enjoy at the best of times, but this year – it just feels so taxing.
Contributors to brain fog
The reason we’re struggling like this, according to Dr. Lily Brown, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, may be because our fight or flight is in overdrive lately. The rational, decision-making part of the brain is overridden by the limbic system when it is consistently triggered by stressful information. The more that override happens, the more we struggle to focus, motivate, think clearly, or control impulses.
We also see brain fog show up when we’re engaging in less physical activity than usual during the day and/or experiencing poor sleep. Both of these deficits also happen to be a result of stress.
According to physician Dr. David Greuner, who has led several sleep studies, “In a nutshell, sleep consolidates memory; a lot of the information you take in while you’re awake is processed while you’re sleeping so not only is your memory affected, but your ability to solve problems is also hindered, in addition to your alertness, attention, concentration and judgment. Your brain isn’t as efficient as it should be.”
A 2013 study at the University of California, Berkeley found that during sleep, your memories are moved from short-term holding to long-term storage. When you get poor quality sleep, those memories don’t move to the prefrontal cortex for storage and they’re forgotten. In other words, after a bad sleep, we don’t retain any of the information or learning we’ve acquired the day before.
Vicious cycle of stress and brain fog
Poor sleep may be a result of stress, but right now it’s also being exacerbated by the massive shift to working from home and video conferencing.
Where people used to get up and walk around the office to chat with co-workers or go for a walking meeting, many are now sitting at desks all day, on video conferencing calls, becoming extremely sedentary.
And, a decrease in physical activity increases poor sleep because we aren’t tiring ourselves out physically during the day – so brain fog becomes a vicious cycle.
Recent evidence shows that chronic stress and the resulting brain fog can lead people to experience depression, weight gain, an increase in alcohol consumption, and feelings of isolation.
When we’re tired from being on conference calls, or tired from brain fog, it may be hard to motivate ourselves to get on the phone to call a friend, so we disconnect from others. This increases our feelings of loneliness – and there’s that vicious cycle again.
Brain Fog & Chiropractic
Every day in our office we hear people who have chronic brain fog recover. As stated above, when the limbic system is constantly overwhelmed with stress, your brain has a harder time making decisions.
We are actually able to measure stress during our initial and follow-up Bio-Structural Examinations. We utilize a measure that combines Heart Rate Variability (HRV) with the Galvonic Response of the skin to give us a graph of your overall energy (battery charge) paired with the balance of your nervous system between the stress response and rest/digest/reproduction response.
The findings from this test helps us determine your overall Bio-Structural Score. This score helps us to determine your plan of care. When we see people under regular chiropractic care, we often see their initial stressed HRV score (white dot down and to the left) recover back into the green zone (white dot centered in the green box).
We see brain fog naturally lift as people are not experiencing a chronic state of stress. How cool is that?!
If you would like to find out more about your Bio-Structural Health, we invite you to schedule an initial consultation with one of our chiropractors.
How to manage brain fog at work
The workplace is where we’re seeing the impacts of brain fog most clearly…
On average, in the past year, people have added 48 minutes to their workday.
The risk of burnout increases as people become unfocused at work and put in more effort to keep up with demands. That’s why we need to manage the causes of brain fog.
First, we need to reduce the amount of time we’re spending on video conferencing calls. In the past year, meetings have increased by 24 percent, on average. So, communicate with your peers, manager or team and start asking:
- Is this meeting necessary?
- Does it have to be a video call?
- Does it have to be longer than 30 minutes?
- Who absolutely needs to attend?
- Can we turn off our cameras or get on a call?
- Can we start the meetings with a check-in: How are people feeling? Are they back-to-back all day?
- Have the meeting leader set a timer to let people scheduled back-to-back jump off 5–10 minutes early.
Now that we’re a year in the pandemic, let’s get better at questioning practices that we used for solving immediate problems in an acute situation. As we’re working from home and video conferencing every day, it’s important to figure out ways to make it more sustainable.
How to manage brain fog in daily life
To address brain fog effectively we need to identify the cause.
- Is the source of stress temporary — like a big project at work — or is it more work in general?
- Am I experiencing a challenge to work/life balance – more chores and life tasks to juggle while working?
- Is my diet or alcohol consumption contributing?
- Is this feeling of brain fog persistent both in times of stress and times of calm? If it’s there in times of calm, it’s important to see your doctor or chiropractor because it could be a sign of something more serious.
If we’re pretty certain the cause of our brain fog is a year of unrelenting stress, here are a few ways to tackle it:
- Of course, more sleep and exercise, less drinking and overeating. This recipe is common knowledge but sometimes, during a stressful time, hard to manage.
- If you want to do something right now… control the controllables. Start by taking just 15 minutes for something you love. That could mean doing something you think is totally frivolous. We need a chance to recharge the brain, so do this activity with zero guilt! To optimize our brains, we need to take short breaks throughout the day.
- Develop a stress management plan:
- Set boundaries around time for self-care.
- Analyze your schedule: Is there anything you can de-prioritize? Be ruthless. It’s easy to say that everything is a priority, but that’s never the case.
- Come up with three ways to manage stressful situations anywhere. Your three things may include breathing exercises, or mindfulness – just make sure they’re things you can do anywhere.