Re-heated your tea three times already? Then you’re probably experiencing brain fog. Yep, two years after it became a key Covid symptom, more of us than ever are struggling to keep up with the number of tabs we have open in our brains…
It was around a year ago when I started to worry that something serious might be going on. I couldn’t remember what I’d had for dinner the previous evening, what I’d been watching on TV or even, embarrassingly, my friends’ names at times. I felt like I couldn’t find common words, and I even locked myself out of my iPhone for a whole day, unable to remember the pin code.
I was seeing my GP anyway, and I dropped into conversation (you know how they love it when patients do that?) that I was struggling with memory issues. Never one to make a drama out of my health issues, I downplayed it, but the words “early-onset dementia” were used and I was terrified that this was the beginning of a slow and painful decline into old age.
Luckily, my GP was brilliant. She calmly explained that it was more likely I had what is commonly known as brain fog; I simply had too many tabs open, and as a result, my brain was on go-slow mode.
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What causes brain fog?
While there can be many reasons for brain fog, including autoimmune disorders, anxiety or depression, it was clear that mine was linked to my constant state of busyness.
And I’m not alone. From side hustles to productivity goals, it feels like we are all trapped in a culture of overachieving, and many of us are simply overwhelmed.
GP and mental health coach Dr Hana Patel explains: “Brain fog is something that patients are coming to see me more about recently as a GP. It’s not one specific symptom, but rather a collection of symptoms, including confusion, being aware that it takes a long time to think, being forgetful, not finding words and mental tiredness.
“Brain fog is a common symptom following a Covid infection, other infection or head injury. It can also be caused by menopause, anxiety, depression or stress.”
Unfortunately, women in particular are at greater risk of developing brain fog as it is heavily influenced by hormones. According to thinktank Women’s Brain Health Initiative, a whopping 60% of women over 40 experience brain fog and it’s generally accepted that there are differences between the male and female brains that make women more susceptible.
It’s certainly not helped by our propensity to multitask. While making breakfast, we can be simultaneously helping with the kids’ homework, packing lunches, ironing outfits and thinking about that all-important work meeting we have going on, and the upshot is, it’s not good for us.
According to Samantha Quemby, a performance and life coach: “A big factor in brain fog is the brain being under stress. If you feel like you’re carrying around lots of ‘to-dos’ in your head, you’ll feel pressured and find it hard to focus.”
Experts liken this to the muscle fatigue you experience after a particularly intense workout: if you exert prolonged and intense pressure on your brain in the form of racing thoughts and a manic to-do list, you’re more likely to suffer brain fatigue, and this will be accompanied by cognitive issues such as short-term memory loss.
How to help yourself cope
Create a simplified daily routine
Taking life a little more slowly is easier said than done, and the thought of closing some of those brain tabs down can feel overwhelming in itself.
Patel advises: “Try to have a daily routine and plan your day. Don’t plan to do too much, and make sure you factor in regular breaks. If you’re finding it difficult to remember and concentrate, consider making reminder notes for yourself, and try to focus on one task at a time, so you’re less easily distracted.”
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Quemby agrees, saying: “Have a system for offloading what you need to do. One thing I often suggest to my clients is having a priority list and a ‘nice to have’ list for each day or week. This works in two ways. It helps you get everything out of your head so you don’t feel the pressure to remember all that needs to be done, and it helps you see that not everything needs to be actioned immediately, therefore alleviating pressure.”
As with so many other things, self-awareness is key here. We will all have a different saturation point, and Patel recommends getting to know your own limits and being aware of your triggers to help you avoid an attack of brain fog. “Be aware of factors such as poor concentration, not being able to work safely, people around you noticing a change, or not feeling able to get through the day. Or there may be no particular warning signs, but an accumulation of symptoms. Often people first become aware of an overwhelming tiredness that is out of character.”
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Take regular breaks
How you spend your (perhaps non-existent) downtime is also crucial. While stepping away from what’s going on may feel counter-intuitive, it’s vital to take some time away from stressors. Quemby suggests: “Spend time switching off and relaxing. Being in front of a computer all day and then on your phone checking emails or social media means your brain is never benefitting from downtime. Get outside and go for a walk after work to focus on being more than doing; create a nice wind-down routine in the evening to give yourself space before switching off the TV and going to sleep. This will increase the chances of a deeper night’s sleep, allowing your brain and body to replenish and you to wake up feeling refreshed and clear-headed.”
So, the next time your thoughts are racing and you’re thinking 10 steps ahead, take a deep breath and step away from whatever it is you’re doing. Your brain, and probably your boss, will thank you for it.
If symptoms persist…
While the brain fog diagnosis was ultimately good news for me, it’s important to note that there are over 40,000 people with early-onset dementia in the UK, and as the symptoms overlap with issues relating to depression, stress and menopause, it can go undiagnosed. According to Dementia UK, there is currently an average four-year delay in correctly diagnosing early-onset dementia, so if you are at all concerned about your symptoms, you should consult your GP.
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