Brain Fog: What Is It? (And Five Ways To Beat It)
Illustration by Mr Frank Moth
Brain fog is a nebulous concept. It’s “not a diagnosis, disease or disorder”, according to Dr Sabina Brennan, a neuroscientist and author of the demystifying book Beating Brain Fog. But the phenomenon – aka mental fatigue (variously regarded as synonym for or symptom of brain fog), cognitive dysfunction (the clinical term) or cog fog – is real. Burn-out, which is a recognised medical condition, has many similar symptoms. Cognitive dysfunction is experienced by an estimated 600 million people globally, including Brennan who, as a consequence of Sjögren’s syndrome, a chronic autoimmune disorder, felt she was forming sentences in “slow motion” and slurring her speech.
Used by Brennan as a catch-all, brain fog can, depending on your individual circumstances, impair one or more distinct domains of cognitive function: language, attention, processing speed, learning and memory, executive function (a collective term for several capacities, including making decisions, planning, taking action, solving problems and controlling impulses) and visuospatial function (understanding where things, your body parts among them, are in space). Brain fog can be mild or severe, intermittent or constant, irritating or debilitating. It can dissipate in days or persist for years.
Beating Brain Fog suggests tactics to combat the many and varied types of head haze and includes, unexpectedly, frequent quotations from Mr Sun Tzu’s Art Of War: “If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” Whatever the precise nature and cause of your brain fog, whether it’s in the current moment or something long-term, there are general strategies you can deploy to deal with it.
Focus on what you can do
“Just because brain fog prevents you doing one thing, that doesn’t mean you have to stop doing everything,” writes Brennan. What that one thing is will depend on your brand of brain fog. Brennan’s book helps pinpoint this by encouraging you to create a profile and keep a record – dare we say a fog log – in order to identify patterns. The overarching principle is to select tasks to suit your abilities at any given time and have a fallback option in the event fog disrupts work.
For example, if you find yourself grinding to a halt on a cognitively demanding project, you might switch to email or other relatively mindless professional admin. Or do some brainless household jobs or exercise (see below) and come back to work only when you’re thinking more clearly. Flexibility – something working from home can facilitate – will “help immensely with feelings of frustration and failure”.
Know when to persist
If your brain fog is mild or even moderate, Brennan advocates persevering with the task, based on the rationale of “use it or lose it”. It’s a bit like injuring your leg, she writes. Depending on the severity of the injury, you might be told to keep moving, so it doesn’t become stiff, or you might have to stay off it completely, which will allow it to heal, but at the temporary cost of muscle tone and ability. Eventually you have to start using it again, however difficult and painful.
Keeping a brain fog record can help you analyse the cost-benefit of sticking and twisting. Brennan recommends stockpiling “non-urgent, easy, repetitive, non-taxing or manual tasks” on your to-do list so you can remain productive and still enjoy a sense of achievement. If your brain fog is severe and you can’t switch to a task that doesn’t tax the impaired cognitive domain(s), then recruit reinforcements, ie, ask someone to help.
Know when to resist and relax
Severe brain fog in tandem with exhaustion or mental fatigue is a clear sign to stop and go for a walk or rest. Or even nap, as we’re biologically programmed to do in the afternoon – thus improving alertness, learning, memory and processing speed – but societally discouraged from. Which is regrettable, because lack or poor quality of sleep is a major brain fog hazard.
Doing nothing is relaxing for some people; for others, it is anything but. The important thing, says Brennan, is to do something unaffected by brain fog that makes you feel relaxed. And resist the societally programmed compulsion to grind late into the night. Both you and your work will be better for a break that allows the solution to come to you (unconscious thought theory) and restores your attention (er, attention restoration theory).
Finally, don’t catastrophise (easier said than done these days). Remind yourself, as Brennan does, that brain fog too shall pass and has multiple, mostly controllable causes. Brain fog is “simply a signal to take action” and probably not, as sufferers can worry, a sign of cancer or dementia.
Work with your natural rhythm
Now that you don’t necessarily have to be in the office at 9.00am, there’s more scope than ever to sync professional commitments to your personal ebb and flow (and nap). Wide awake first thing? Befogged by late afternoon? Schedule strategically, diarising your most difficult tasks for when you’re energetic and alert and the least onerous ones for when you’re tired or distracted.
Be realistic about how much you and others can achieve, says Brennan. Not only will unrealistic expectations invite failure and disappointment, but your brain fog will only be compounded by the resulting stress – another substantial contributor that’s also topical. Brennan prescribes reframing stressors as “challenges” and opportunities for growth, seeing yourself as active in, if not master of, your destiny, accepting what you can’t control, looking for silver linings, resisting the impulse to withdraw socially and laughing.
If your job is sedentary, Brennan suggests setting a phone alarm to prompt you to move around every hour or two. Sitting for prolonged periods puts your body into “sleep mode”. And at lunch, get out of the house and your clouded head. Look around.
Exercise your mind and body
Aerobic exercise will enable your heart and lungs to pump more oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood to your brain. Regular physical activity protects cognitive function and aerobic exercise, in particular, can restore lost executive function and improve sleep, mood, depression and anxiety, all of which aggravate brain fog. Exercise also ramps up the production of new brain cells or neurons: brain gains, if you will.
Speaking of which, you should exercise your brain, which will grow stronger and even bigger. By learning the layout of 25,000 streets, London taxi drivers pump up their hippocampi (you have two), the areas involved in spatial memory. Learning anything new – information, skills, people and places – can promote neuroplasticity, says Brennan, as can taking existing activities to the next, more challenging level. She does not, however, endorse overhyped, under-proven “brain training” games.
A “fit, healthy, dense, well-connected brain” is the best anti-fog defence, as Sun Tzu didn’t write.