Brain fog describes a mental fuzziness or lack of clarity.
When dealing with it, you might experience:
- trouble putting thoughts together
- difficulty concentrating or remembering what you were doing
- physical or mental exhaustion
- lack of motivation and interest in the things you’d usually do
- thoughts that seem hazy or difficult to grasp
If your brain is a computer, ongoing anxiety and stress are those programs that run in the background and use up tons of memory and make everything else run slowly.
Even if you don’t actively focus on anxious thoughts, they often still run in the background of your brain and might contribute to physical symptoms like uneasiness, stomach upset, or fatigue.
Anxiety-related brain fog doesn’t just make it hard to get things done. It can also give you another thing to feel anxious about, especially if it’s been happening for a while.
Here are a few tips for lifting the fog.
Identifying the causes of brain fog can help you figure out how to address it more effectively.
Temporary sources of stress — like a big project at work — can contribute to mental fatigue. Those causes are often fairly easy to identify.
But if you’ve been dealing with anxiety or stress for a while, you might have a harder time recognizing what’s affecting you.
If you can’t quite pinpoint what’s creating all the background noise in your mind, working with a therapist can be a big help (more on this later).
Sleep deprivation can make it difficult to think clearly during the day, regardless of whether or not you’re dealing with anxiety.
A night or two of less sleep than usual probably won’t have a long lasting impact, as long as you get enough sleep most nights.
But if you regularly don’t get enough sleep, you’ll likely start to notice some negative consequences, including irritability, daytime sleepiness, and — you guessed it — difficulty concentrating.
Caffeine can help you feel more alert temporarily, but it’s not a good permanent solution. Aiming for at least 7 hours of sleep every night is a good start, but you may need up to 9 hours for optimal function.
Stress often happens when life becomes busier than normal.
If you have so many responsibilities you don’t know how to manage them all, it may seem counterproductive — if not impossible — to take time to relax or enjoy a favorite hobby.
Try setting aside 30 minutes to 1 hour each day for a calming, enjoyable activity, like:
Even if you only have 15 minutes to spare some days, spend that time doing something you love. This can give your brain a much-needed chance to recharge.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and unable to focus, sitting with your thoughts might not sound like the best thing to do, but hear us out.
Meditation can help you increase your awareness of physical and emotional experiences as they happen and regulate unwanted or challenging emotions.
Not eating enough, or not getting the right nutrients, can make it difficult to focus.
When stressed, you might feel too tired to prepare balanced meals and turn to snacks or fast food instead. These foods typically don’t offer much in the way of energy boosting nutrients. In fact, they might have the opposite effect, making you feel tired and lethargic.
Anxiety can also contribute to stomach problems that make it difficult to eat like you normally would. If you skip a few meals, you might end up feeling nauseous at the thought of food, which can drain you even more.
Adding the following foods to your diet can help improve cognition:
- fresh produce (especially berries and leafy greens)
- whole grains
- lean proteins like fish and poultry
That said, remember that eating something is better than eating nothing.
Taking care to stay hydrated can also help improve brain fog. You might know dehydration can affect your physical health, but it can also have negative consequences on your energy level, concentration, and memory.
Physical activity has plenty of benefits, so it may not surprise you to learn improved cognition is among them.
Exercise can help:
- improve your sleep
- increase the flow of blood to your brain
- improve memory and reaction time
You don’t need to hit the gym for an intense workout (though that can also help). A quick 15-minute walk around the neighborhood at a brisk pace can often do the job.
Say you’re working on something you really need to get done. You’ve spent a lot of time on the project, but it’s important, and you feel a little worried about it not turning out as well as you hope. So, you keep going over your work, double-checking and making sure everything’s as close to perfect as you can get it.
Even though you feel your concentration waning as you work, you don’t feel able to stop. You tell yourself a break would stall your progress and decide to power through instead.
Trying to keep working through a patch of brain fog generally isn’t the best solution, especially if you feel anxious about the outcome of what you’re trying to do.
Think about driving through a heavy downpour: If you can’t see the road or concentrate over the sound of hail hitting your windshield, it’s wise to just pull over until things calm down.
Same goes for trying to get things done when your brain’s feeling foggy.
Taking just 15 minutes away from your work (to read, stretch, stare into space — whatever feels right) can help you reset and return with improved productivity.
Stress happens to everyone, so identifying a few go-to coping strategies is a smart investment.
- Setting boundaries to protect time for self-care.
- Getting comfortable saying “no” to requests for help when you’re already busy.
- Thinking of three ways to manage stressful situations anywhere. (Breathing exercises can be a good place to start.)
- Journaling about your mood and emotions.
Looking for more inspo? Consider these 30 grounding exercises to calm your mind.
Even if you believe your brain fog relates to anxiety, it’s still a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider to rule out other causes of brain fog.
This is particularly important if you’re taking steps to address your anxiety but still notice mental fatigue and problems with concentration.
Some potential causes of brain fog include:
While all of these strategies can help you better manage brain fog, they aren’t a long-term solution to managing anxiety.
Anxiety doesn’t have a cure, but talking to a therapist can help you get more insight on your triggers so you can learn how to manage them effectively.
Many people don’t realize they’re dealing with anxiety since they don’t feel overly worried about anything in particular. Anxiety symptoms can vary widely, however, and often involve physical experiences as well as emotional ones.
A therapist can help you identify and explore causes of any unexplained emotional symptoms, so reaching out is always a good option.
Brain fog can also be a symptom of depression, so if you feel low, hopeless, or have thoughts of suicide, it’s best to talk to a trained professional, like a therapist or crisis counselor, as soon as possible.
Not sure where to start? Our guide to affordable therapy can help.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.