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Brain fog is a real thing. Well-being columnist Jennifer Moss sheds some light on it

Happiness and well-being columnist Jennifer Moss looks at how, after a year of enduring pandemic stress, brain fog may be clouding your thoughts.

Prolonged stress and chronic fight-or-flight state can override ability to focus

Fog advisories generally come from Environment Canada but our well-being and happiness columnist Jennifer Moss says "brain fog" caused by prolonged stress can cloud your thinking. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

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: 

  • You feel like you're searching for your words. 
  • You have difficulty making up your mind and making small decisions becomes a big deal. 
  • You lose your focus quickly – 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. When our limbic system is consistently triggered by stressful information or events it overrides the executive functioning part of our brain, which is where rational and clear decision-making occurs. 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. 

In previous columns, I've discussed how lack of sleep can be massively disruptive to our well-being. One study found that after just one all-nighter, subjects who participated in a simulated driving experience drove similarly to people with a blood alcohol level of .10 per cent (.08 is the drunk driving limit in Canada). 

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. 

Brain fog, feeling a bit out of it and forgetting why you came into a room, can be caused by prolonged stress exacerbated by chronic lack of sleep. Sound familiar? (Shutterstock / Dusan Petkovic)

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.

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. 

Trying to keep up with productivity demands at work when it's hard to stay on top of those demands because we're unfocused or because work takes way more effort than normal increases the risk of burnout. 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 per cent, 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? 
  • Can the meeting leader set a timer to let people who are booked back-to-back jump off 5–10 minutes early?

We need to get better at questioning practices that were used for solving immediate problems in an acute situation – we're now a year into the pandemic. This – working from home and video conferencing – is how we're working now and will be for some time, so 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.

Ask yourself: 

  • 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 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: 

  1. Of course, more sleep and exercise, less drinking and overeating. This recipe is common knowledge but sometimes, during a stressful time, hard to manage.
  2. If you want to do something right now and – as I like to say – control the controllables, start by taking just 15 minutes for something you love. That could mean doing something you think is totally frivolous. There's one caveat: It must be done with zero guilt. Remind yourself that you're giving a very fried brain a much-needed chance to recharge. To optimize our brains, we need to take short breaks throughout the day. 
  3. 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 your "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.

Look forward to spring

Another factor that plays into brain fog is weather. So, in the middle of winter it can feel a bit hard to motivate ourselves to make changes. 

But remember: Spring is near – just over a month away. The increased light will clear away some of those cobwebs. A little hope can go a long way toward clearing our minds. 

About the Author

Jennifer Moss

CBC Happiness and Well-being Columnist

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member.

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