Foggy thoughts, confusion, memory loss, going blank… these are all characteristics of brain fog, a normal but uncomfortable anxiety symptom that can make you feel like you’re losing your mind. In this article, we’ll help you clear the fog around this challenging experience by shedding light on why it happens and what you can do to prevent or overcome it when it does.
Brain fog is one of a range of confusing and uncomfortable anxiety symptoms. It usually happens to those who already have an anxiety disorder, such as generalized anxiety disorder or social anxiety disorder. Such conditions vary in severity over time and increase when exacerbated by other life events such as excessive stress or a major change.
Even if you don’t struggle with an anxiety disorder, you can still experience anxiety brain fog. Everyone is prone to anxiety at some point in life, and just stress and significant change can exacerbate a condition. They can also evoke anxiety symptoms in those without a diagnosis.
Why Does My Head Feel Heavy?
Anxiety makes your head feel heavy because it causes a tension headache, which is likely to occur in people with anxiety disorders. The feeling can be likened to your head having a tight bandage wrapped around it. Your body experiences physical stress and pain as it battles mental stress at the same time.
Furthermore, anxiety has been tied to the brain’s and body’s chemical imbalances. Scientists have discovered a link between anxiety and sensations that affect the head. Migraines and other types of headaches can also be triggered because of uncontrolled negative thinking.
What is brain fog?
As the name implies, brain fog is the feeling that your mind has become ‘foggy’ or ‘cloudy’ – i.e., unclear, hard to see, covered. It’s a normal reaction to a prolonged stress response in the brain (as happens with anxiety) and is also known as mental fatigue.
Anxiety brain fog shows up like some or all of the following emotional and cognitive symptoms:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor focus and attention
- Poor memory
- Mental fatigue
- Difficulty organizing thoughts
- Difficulty absorbing information
- Anxiety about the experience
- Losing track of your thoughts in conversation
Brain fog is an anxiety symptom, but it can also show up as a symptom of other mental health conditions, such as:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Chronic stress
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (A.D.H.D.)
What causes brain fog?
As mentioned above, several types of mental health issues and mental illnesses can cause brain fog. In all cases, however, the symptom is exacerbated by stress. Life can be stressful at the best of times, but what separates health and function from fatigue, weakness, and ‘fogginess’ is how an individual handles stress. Effective stress management has consistently been associated with increased cognitive abilities and better brain function in general.
Mental Exhaustion Symptoms
Below are some symptoms of mental exhaustion:
- Irritability or short-temperedness
- Lack of concentration or focus
- Inability to finish usual tasks
- Disengagement in activities
- Lack of interest in any activity
- Lack of sleep
- Engagement in unhealthy activities like over-drinking alcohol or overeating
- Feeling of numbness
- Feelings of depression
- Difficulty in handling emotions
- Difficulty in remembering information
- Tendency to isolate
Moreover, dietary choices, sleep quality, and resourcefulness also influence the frequency and severity of brain fog, anxiety disorder, or not. The brain is a powerful organ, but it’s sensitive, and we need to prioritize its health and well-being if we want to live a healthy, happy life, free from debilitating mental health symptoms. With the right amount of rest and nutrition, we boost our mood and emotional resilience and help the brain function at its optimal capacity.
Another potential cause of brain fog is hormonal changes and imbalance. Pregnant women are subject to huge hormonal shifts within the brain and body that can affect brain function, potentially leading to brain fog. The tiredness and fatigue that comes with pregnancy can also lead to brain fog. Combined, this is sometimes known as the ‘pregnancy brain.’
How to overcome anxiety brain fog
Brain fog is just one of a broad range of anxiety symptoms. Others include worry and rumination, catastrophic thinking, nervousness, muscle tension, and sleep issues. Understanding and learning about anxiety’s many symptoms are vital if you suspect you might be struggling with this common mental health condition.
Many of us experience anxiety-related problems without the condition, but it’s always wise to consult a professional if you think your symptoms may indicate something deeper. There are many treatments available for anxiety that focus on your unique needs as an individual, and as such, take an effective holistic approach to recovery.
Beyond professional treatment, there are also steps and techniques you can use in your everyday life to help you manage brain fog and other anxiety symptoms. There are small but powerful lifestyle changes that give your brain and body a chance to rest and recharge and will make you feel more grounded, whole, and present. They’ll also help you optimize your physical and mental health, cognitive acuity, and memory.
‘Sit in meditation for 20 minutes a day, unless you’re too busy. Then sit for an hour.’ – Zen proverb.
Brain fog and other anxiety symptoms signify that you need to rest. When brain fog happens, it’s usually because the brain has been overstimulated with stress hormones and remained active for too long. The brain and body are designed to handle stress in short bursts, but when it persists, we risk a range of illnesses and diseases, one of which is anxiety and its often debilitating symptoms.
Poor quality sleep is one causal factor for brain fog but can also be a symptom. It’s wise to make sure you get enough sleep by prioritizing your time so that you get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, as per the guidelines set by the C.D.C.
To improve your sleep quality, set aside time before you go to bed each night to unwind. Many of us are glued to screens, so you might have a habit of scrolling or finishing work late into the night. Blue light from screens keeps the brain active, and in addition, if you’re scrolling through social media, you’re exposing yourself to lots of emotional stimulation, such as world news, friend’s drama, and conflicting themes and subjects.
Set aside at least an hour before bed to wind down properly, without your phone or laptop, without late-night snacks or stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine. Doing so gives your brain a chance to prepare for sleep and drastically improves the quality of rest you get.
The same applies to your mornings. Try not to reach for your phone first thing. Instead, use the first thirty minutes of your morning to stretch, practice mindful breathing, and write down a maximum of three things you want to achieve that day.
2. Check yourself with H.A.L.T.
H.A.L.T. is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. HALT is a valuable technique for checking in with yourself when you’re feeling extra stress or anxiety and experiencing challenging symptoms. Hunger, heavy emotions like anger, loneliness, and feelings of isolation, and tiredness or fatigue can all make anxiety worse and are significant causes of brain fog.
Before you become reactive to your anxious feelings by seeking some means of escape or avoidance, first check that it’s not stemming from one of the above. If it is, then take action to deal with the immediate issue.
If you’re hungry, be mindful of binge eating or eating for comfort. Nourish your body with healthy whole foods rich in nutrients over quick-fix sugary snacks.
If anger arises, try journaling or speaking to someone who will let you vent.
If you’re feeling lonely, reach out to a trusted friend or loved one for a chat, rather than heading straight to a bar to see people and drink or hang out with people with whom you don’t resonate just for the sake of it.
If you’re tired, try to get some good quality rest by meditating, relaxing your muscles, or even going for a walk in nature, rather than gluing your eyes to a screen or eating or drinking to the point that you pass out.
3. Set boundaries around your time and energy
Whether you have an anxiety disorder or not, life can be stressful and exhausting at times. We all need time to rest and recover from the day-to-day stress, but many of us struggle to set healthy boundaries. We want to be a ‘yes’ person and get involved in that new project, or hang out with that new coworker, or be there for our friends when they’re going through it, but rarely give ourselves a chance to cut off from the world and get some much needed, high-quality, deep rest.
The more you push yourself to be there for others, take on extra work, and be with several people at once, the more likely you are to experience brain fog. You’re equally more likely to experience the whole range of other anxiety symptoms too.
Set healthy boundaries around your time and energy to prevent the onset of symptoms. That means prioritizing rest and sleep, eating well, and being mindful of the people and energy with whom you spend your time. Anything outside of those priorities is something you can say ‘no’ and not have to feel guilty about.
4. Improve your diet
The way we choose to nourish our bodies directly impacts our mental health and brain function. Consistent research shows that a nutrient-rich diet that includes all the essential vitamins and minerals leads to greater cognitive function, improved mood, and greater overall well-being than a diet that is lacking in such quality.
Still, eating a healthy, nutritious diet is easier said than done. The world we live in is oriented towards constant productivity and busyness. It can be hard to make your way in society without sacrificing quality personal time to prepare and cook delicious, nutritious food every day.
However, foregoing a healthy diet for the sake of time efficiency and productivity can have the opposite of its desired effect. The more stressed we become, whether that’s a result of our anxiety and simple day-to-day life, the more we need to set aside time to nourish ourselves with quality food and rest.
When it comes to anxiety, nausea, unease, and even cramps that come with it can make us lose our appetite, and we might skip a meal or two. The problem with meal skipping is that we need food to give us energy, so if we forgo a meal, then we’re more likely to feel exhausted, which doesn’t help our mental clarity.
You may already know that exercise boasts a range of benefits, such as more energy, a more robust immune system, improved mood, and an increased sense of well-being. Research also shows that exercise leads to greater brain function. One study highlights how those who exercise regularly demonstrate greater cognitive function than those who don’t.
6. Professional support
An occasional bout of brain fog happens to most people, so it’s not usually a cause for concern. However, if you’re getting brain damage more frequently and it’s getting in the way of your life, then it’s wise to speak to a mental health professional who can provide medical advice. It may stem from excess stress lately, or it might indicate an underlying anxiety disorder. Still, it might also indicate several other health conditions or another mental illness, so it’s wise to seek consultation and support.