If you lose your train of thought mid-sentence or can’t think of a word more often than you’d like, you’re not alone. Mental fogginess or forgetfulness can feel scary, but it’s often not as big a deal as we fear. And with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of people are experiencing brain fog.
It may be comforting to know you’re in good company, but that knowledge won’t help when you’re grasping for a word or hunting for your misplaced car keys. Let’s take a closer look at what brain fog is, the common symptoms and causes, and some straightforward strategies to prevent or improve it.
The Most Common Symptoms of Brain Fog
Brain fog, which is sometimes called “mental fatigue,” is not a medical condition. Rather, it’s a term used to describe a variety of symptoms that can impact a person’s ability to think clearly and stay focused. The experience of brain fog varies, but many people exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:
- Difficulty remembering things
- Poor concentration
- Trouble focusing
- Mental “fuzziness” or “muddiness”
- Feeling “out of it”
- Mental and/or physical exhaustion
- Difficulty articulating thoughts
All told, these symptoms deprive a person of mental clarity and make it more challenging to think on their feet.
Common Causes of Brain Fog
Brain fog can result from several factors, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies (particularly a vitamin B12 deficiency)
- Hormonal changes, such as those brought on by pregnancy, menopause, or thyroid issues
- Long-term stress or trauma
- Loss of routines
- Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression
- Medication side effects
- Medical treatments
- Physical health conditions such as multiple sclerosis, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, lupus, COVID-19 infection, and post-COVID conditions
Often, these challenges go hand in hand. For instance, sleep deprivation can provoke stress, while stress or trauma can cause sleep deprivation. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted most people’s routines in some way, and it’s also causing many people to experience stress, anxiety, depression, or trauma.
In fact, according to a 2021 survey from the American Psychological Association, more than three-quarters of Americans report that the pandemic is a significant source of stress. Meanwhile, the percentage of Americans experiencing anxiety and depression has risen from 36 percent to 42 percent during the pandemic.
In other words? If your brain fog has ramped up as the pandemic wears on, you’re in good company.
Strategies to Neutralize (Or Better Cope With) Brain Fog
No matter the exact symptoms or causes of brain fog, several approaches can help you combat it. Here are some proven strategies to get you started.
- Rule out underlying medical issues.
First things first: Find out if you have a physical health condition that could contribute to brain fog. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for vitamin and mineral deficiencies and other potential health issues. No matter the results, this data will offer a better sense of what steps to take next.
- Improve your sleep hygiene.
If you’re struggling with sleep deprivation, better sleep hygiene could help. Designate your bedroom for sleep and sex only, keep electronics out of the bedroom, and maintain a cool, dark, and quiet sleep environment. It may also help to develop a bedtime routine of journaling or meditation to quiet the mind before climbing under the covers.
- Keep the brain active.
Our brains grow when presented with new ideas and experiences. Keep your brain active by learning a new skill at work, volunteering, or taking up a new hobby such as playing an instrument, reading books, or cooking. Not only can learning help you combat brain fog, but it can also stave off dementia later in life.
- Level up your diet.
Researchers have linked diet and brain health. Level up your diet by consuming a balance of protein, produce, and healthy fats. Mediterranean-style meals may be especially beneficial — think olive oil, nuts and beans, whole grains, and plenty of fruits and veggies.
- Exercise regularly.
Physical activity isn’t just good for your body; it’s also good for the mind. That’s because regular exercise can reduce stress, improve memory, support problem-solving, promote quality sleep, and generally boost cognitive health. Aim for approximately 30 minutes per day, five days per week, and choose activities you enjoy so you’re more likely to stick with an exercise routine. A brisk walk can make a positive difference.
- Build in routines.
Our brains rely on routines so they can take breaks during the parts of our days that become so habitual they happen on autopilot — for instance, brushing your teeth, commuting on the train, walking to the office, and so on. But the pandemic has disrupted many of our routines, meaning our brains don’t get predictable “breaks.”
Support your brain by creating new routines and practicing them consistently. Some good options? Take a walk first thing every morning, clean your desk at the end of every workday, and prep dinner at the same time each evening.
- Manage your stress levels.
Many of the tips above reduce stress, including exercising, eating a healthy diet, getting better sleep, and having predictable routines. Take things a step further by developing a stress management plan that includes journaling, meditation, adequate downtime, quality time with loved ones, and time spent in nature. Observe the activities that help clear your mind and rejuvenate you, and plan to do them more often.
It can be scary to forget words, misplace items, or walk around in a haze. But brain fog isn’t necessarily a sign of something serious. Often, it’s the predictable result of stressful life circumstances, and several common-sense approaches can help resolve it.
If you try the strategies above and nothing helps — or if brain fog interferes with your ability to function in daily life — consult your doctor or mental health professional. They’ll help identify possible causes and additional solutions so you can think more clearly and feel more like yourself again.