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Are you having trouble focusing or thinking as strategically or clearly as you would like to? Do you constantly find yourself looking for your keys or forgetting where you put your mask? It’s possible you’re experiencing “brain fog,” and you’re not alone. Increased cortisol, screentime, global anxiety and stress combined with high stakes of a recent election and global pandemic; there has rarely been a time when an entire nation is experiencing chronic uncertainty and stress simultaneously. There’s science behind your lack of focus and some things you can do to help minimize the brain fog experience and increase your overall mental health.
First, what is brain fog? While people say the phrase often, it’s not a medical condition. It’s a term used for a combination of symptoms that affect your ability to think. You may feel confused, disorganized or find it hard to focus or put thoughts into words. It’s a term that describes the cognitive impact of depression, anxiety, stress, and other psychological struggles. For some people, they may just feel out of sorts and struggle to do things with the same efficiency that they previously did. We are hearing versions of this experience across many of our clients from all ages and life circumstances. So here’s the first thing to know: you’re not losing your mind or permanently experiencing a change in how your brain works. Now, let’s talk about why this might be happening.
It’s normal to be experiencing brain fog right now; in fact, it might be directly related to the long-term impact of living in a pandemic. When we are living under higher stress and stakes, our attention is directed on issues that impact survival: health, financial wellness, and connection (or lack of it!). There’s only so much energy, and thus we may have less focus or energy for the other things in our day-to-day life. Plus, this “brain fog” experience can be triggered by depression, stress, anxiety, or trauma (during a pandemic or not). Lack of concentration and inability to focus is a symptom often experienced during depression and PTSD. It’s important to note that if you already were dealing with any of these mental health symptoms, your experience could be escalated.
Now, what can you do to minimize these symptoms?
- Practice self compassion. The number one thing we advise is to actively practice self compassion. Self-compassion interventions have been found to increase optimism, happiness, life satisfaction, self-efficacy and body acceptance, to decrease depression, anxiety, stress and body shame (Albertson et al., 2014; Neff & Germer, 2013), and to positively impact physiological responses to stress (Arch et al., 2014.) It’s majorly beneficial!
- Create a flexible routine and understand some days may be harder than others: Set boundaries around work time and home time, keep a regular sleep and eating routine, but try not to be rigid with yourself about it. There may be days when you are not functioning at your highest capacity. Treating yourself with compassion will be easier than trying to live up to standards that do not fit this moment in our lives.
- Find self care that works for you. When you think about self care, you might think of meditation, exercise, and establishing routines. While these are all proven ways to relieve stress and increase your mental health, they have to work for you. Healthy coping is about being creative, tuning into how you feel, and adjusting as needed. If you are not finding the relief you seek, try something else. If doing your self care activity feels like effort, odds are, you won’t continue it whereas if you enjoy it or notice benefits, you are more likely to keep up the routine and feel the relief you are seeking.
- Get outside. Particularly during the winter months when sunlight is scarce, getting outside even for 10 minutes can increase your overall mood and mental health. In a 2015 study, researchers compared the brain activity of people after they walked in either a natural setting or an urban one. Those who walked in nature had lower activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain region that is active during rumination — defined as repetitive thoughts that focus on negative emotions. Interacting with natural spaces offers other benefits. Studies have shown calming nature sounds and simply being outdoors can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Find a park, walk around the block, take a peek at a tree – the best part? It’s free!
- Avoid getting into a shame spiral. When you can’t do things the way you are used to doing them, you may become self-critical. “Why can’t I do this?” “Why am I forgetting everything?” “I’m so incompetent!” This is the opposite of helpful. See bullet point one: practice self compassion! Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself compassion. This is a hard time to be a human. Your body is doing its best to keep up, and we have to give it some space and understanding. If you find yourself spiraling, stop the thought, reframe, and try something else. Everything is easier when you’re practicing self compassion.
Experiencing difficulty concentrating or tuning into the details of life can be frustrating and exhausting. However, taking small steps each day can help and increase your focus over time. And remember, there’s a difference between baseline pandemic stress and brain fog, depression, anxiety, or obsessive thoughts that are impacting your daily functioning. If the above tips aren’t offering you the relief you seek, contact us. We can help.