It may not be an official medical term, but most of us with chronic illness are all-too-familiar with the concept: brain fog.
Brain fog refers to the inability to think clearly. Your conscious feels clouded, you can’t concentrate and you find it difficult to remember the simplest things. As a result, you may feel confused, disorientated or detached from reality – like you’re walking with your head in the clouds.
Brain fog isn’t a medical condition in itself, but rather a set of symptoms that accompanies other health problems. For example, people with chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia experience brain fog on a regular basis. But diseases associated with chronic inflammation and changes in blood glucose levels, like diabetes, lupus and multiple sclerosis, also cause mental fatigue and poor concentration. Brain fog can also be a side effect of medication.
Finally, a foggy brain can be caused – or worsened – by lifestyle factors such as poor diet and food intolerances, a lack of sleep and high stress levels.
How does brain fog affect your life?
Brain fog sounds like an annoying cognitive problem, but nothing too serious. In a way, that’s true – especially if you look at all the funny memes about living with brain fog.
But having a foggy mind can affect your daily life much more than people may realize. Mental fatigue, poor concentration and memory problems interfere with work or school. On bad brain days, the world around you seems to move at a speed that you can’t keep up with. That makes everyday things like navigating busy traffic or doing your grocery shopping feel like finding your way through a maze of quicksand.
Forgetting words mid-sentence also makes it difficult to join in on conversations, which can be alienating and lonely. And when you’re by yourself , it’s mind-numbingly boring to not have enough mental focus to read a book and watch your favourite series.
So what can you do to stop or prevent brain fog?
There’s no medical test that shows you have brain fog, nor is there any medication to fix it. However, there are things you can do to improve your cognitive functioning.
In his massive biohacking bible ‘Boundless’, Ben Greenfield devotes multiple chapters to upgrading your brain power. For your brain to function optimally, you need the pillars of good health: getting a good night’s sleep, repairing your gut health, moving your body, avoiding toxins and kissing high stress levels goodbye. And besides giving your cognition a physical health boost, you could train your brain to improve your attention span and memory.
But that’s the thing: those aspects of healthy living are often hard to get by when chronic pain keeps you up all night and fatigue stops you from making nutrient-rich dinners each night. And let’s not even get started about how stressful life with chronic illness can be.
So how do you deal with brain fog when it can’t be fully eliminated or prevented?
On days that you wake up with a clouded mind, try these 10 short-term strategies to deal with brain fog.
This blog post contains some affiliate links to resources you may find useful, at no extra costs to you. All opinions are my own.
10 Short-Term Strategies to Deal with Brain Fog
When you have brain fog, there are 3 main strategies you can use to make things easier and get through the day:
- Optimize your brain functioning – because every little improvement counts, right?
- Lighten your cognitive workload.
- Prevent worsening of your brain fog symptoms.
And yes, obviously it’s hard to remember these tips when you need them the most, so bookmark this list for clouded days!
1. Stay hydrated
Every function in your body depends on water to work, including your brain. That’s why it’s so important to replenish the fluids you lose each day through sweating, breathing and eliminating waste products.
Signs of mild dehydration include mental fatigue, memory problems and trouble focusing. So one simple way to ease your brain fog is to stay hydrated throughout the day. If you struggle to drink enough, place a bottle of (flavored) water or a big pot of tea next to you so you can take sips whenever you think about it. Eating water-rich foods like fruit, yoghurt, salads and soups also works to rehydrate.
2. Work with your peak hours
Which times of day do you feel most focused? When you can, use your most mentally productive hours of the day for tasks that require your full attention. If you can only concentrate for a limited time, don’t waste those precious alert moments on surfing the net when you have insurance papers or tax forms to fill out. Save activities that require less brainpower for times when you’re more likely to be tired.
If you’d like to learn to work with your body clock instead of against fighting your natural rhythm, I highly recommend ‘The Power of When’ from Michael Breus.
3. Tame your to-do list
If you’re experiencing severe brain fog, chances are you’re not going to get everything you planned done today. So be gentle with yourself and don’t force yourself to push through the mental fatigue – at least, not too long or too far. Instead, pace yourself and take another look at your to-do list.
What is your biggest priority? What can wait until you hopefully feel a little better? Can you ask for help or is there anything you can skip all together?
Taming your to-do list, saying ‘no’ and setting healthy boundaries can feel scary at first, but it does prevent even more stress and exhaustion in the long run.
4. Break down tasks and activities
Do you struggle to concentrate on your work or to keep an overview? Break down your tasks into small, bite-sized chunks.
For example, if you really have to answer your email but all the letters are dancing on your screen, don’t try to write an eloquent response in one sitting. Instead, read the message you’re replying to first and jot down a few key points you want to address. Take a short mental break. Then, formulate your reply. Stretch your legs again before giving your email a final check for weird typos. Finally, send it.
5. Time your caffeine intake
We all love coffee for its ability to give us a much-needed boost. But reaching for your morning cup of joe right after waking may not be the best strategy for sustained energy.
Research suggest that you benefit the most from that caffeine jolt if you drink coffee when your cortisol levels are low, which is mid-morning for most people. It’s no coincident that’s the time of the traditional coffee break!
So time your caffeine intake wisely to fight off mental fatigue. You could also try matcha latte or green tea for a gentler buzz.
6. Limit distractions
Social media pings, phone calls and interruptions from family members or colleagues… When you can’t focus and your monkey mind is jumping from one thought to the next, you don’t need any more distractions.
A study from the University of California Irvine shows it takes a (well-functioning!) brain on average 23 minutes to bring its full attention back to a task after being interrupted. Not what you need when you’re already struggling with brain fog.
So minimize distractions: turn off notifications, don’t keep 101 taps open in your browser and practice single-tasking. Use the Pomodoro technique and work in small, concentrated bursts of 25 minutes before taking a break. Take it easy on your brain by avoiding cognitive overload.
7. Write things down
Forgetting everything the moment another thought crosses your mind? Writing things down helps you to remember important dates, to-dos and plans – both by having a visual reminder to look at and because taking notes by hand boosts your memory. What’s more, it lightens your mental workload by ‘unloading’ your thoughts onto paper.
8. Prevent sensory overload
The last thing you need when your mind is already struggling to grasp what’s going on around you, is getting more mental input. Sensory overload is the term used for that restless or anxious feeling you get when your brain can’t process all the loud noises, bright lights or penetrating smells you experience. It’s a common symptom in people with chronic fatigue syndrome, MS and stroke survivors. Sensory overload can contribute to mental fatigue, and mental fatigue in turn may worsen your sensitivity to sounds and other stimuli.
On bad brain fog days, you might want to avoid crowded places and activities that overstimulate your senses. Also make sure you schedule enough alone time to wind down and recharge. You can read more coping strategies to prevent and deal with sensory overload here.
9. Practice deep belly breathing
Have you ever realized that breathing is the only bodily function you can do both intentionally and automatically? Your breathe forms a bridge between your body and mind. What’s more, breathing exercises are an effective tool to reduce stress, which is a common cause and contributor to brain fog. And even better, focusing on your breath activates brain regions related to your mood, attention span and body awareness.
So take a few moments throughout the day to calm your mind and regain your focus by practicing deep belly breathing. Simply place your hand on your belly and breathe in gently through your nose. As you inhale, your belly expands, like a ballon that’s being blown up. Next, exhale slowly through your mouth. Repeat this breathing exercise a few times to clear your foggy mind.
10. Entertain yourself with low-focus activities
How do you keep yourself busy on bad brain fog days? Chances are, you’re too mentally exhausted to try anything taxing like reading serious literature, and you also don’t want to overload your senses with loud music or flashy video games.
It can be helpful to make a list of low-focus activities – both fun and work-related – that you can turn to during bad brain fog moments. That way, you get through the day without overburdening your brain, and hopefully have a better day tomorrow.
For example, being in green surroundings proves to ease mental fatigue, so a short walk in the park or a natural area would be a great activity. Working with your hands is also surprisingly good for your brain. Manual activities like drawing, chopping veggies and gardening reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and produce endorphins. For more low-energy ideas to entertain yourself, download the free Bored and Sick Guide.
Hopefully, these 10 coping techniques will help you to get through those days when you wake up with a foggy, unfocused mind. But if you have to deal with brain fog on a regular basis, it would be best if you could tackle the underlying problem.
Would you like to prevent brain fog from happening in the first place? You can find more long-term strategies to free up mental space, train your brain and regain your focus in my step-by-step guide How to Create Your Own Action Plan for Recovery.
Tell me, how do you deal with brain fog when your mind’s clouded?
If you enjoyed this article, you might also like: