It’s an unfortunate piece of psychological irony that during times of extreme stress, the cognitive side effects of stress can make it harder for us to deal with the events responsible for causing that stress in the first place.
And yes, 2020. There’s a one hundred percent chance we’re talking about you.
For many people, one of the most common ways stress manifests psychologically is through the feeling of experiencing “brain fog.” Described by some as feeling like you’re mentally under water, brain fog is a sensation of cloudy-headed fuzziness and confusion that’s often brought on by stress, anxiety, depression and/or a lack of sleep. And without your full mental faculties at your disposal, brain fog can make a hard time feel even harder to sludge through.
The good news is that if you’re ready to clear the fog and get back to a state of greater mental clarity again, there are a few things you can do.
1. Drink more water.
We know, we know. It’s obvious. But considering the human brain is made of about 75% water, it makes sense that proper hydration plays a key role in ensuring that your brain can think clearly and stay focused. Water also plays a part in delivering nutrients to and removing toxins from the brain. If you’re even mildly dehydrated, it’s likely to result in cognitive confusion, mood swings and poor motor coordination, Mindy Millard-Stafford, director of the Exercise Physiology Laboratory at Georgia Institute Of Technology, told NPR.
2. Get more (and better) sleep.
There’s truly no replacement for sleep. A lack of it can interfere with attention, concentration, and reaction time, according to Harvard. Going without sleep for 48 hours can even harm your thinking skills as much as a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1% — which is above the legal limit for driving in every state. To get better sleep, Dr. Lawrence Epstein, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, said it’s a good idea to:
Check for medical conditions that may be interfering with your ability to sleep
Use the bed for sleep and sex only (i.e. no television or work)
Exercise three hours before you go to bed
Don’t eat close to your bedtime
3. Eat fewer inflammatory foods, and drink less alcohol.
Inflammatory foods can increase pro-inflammatory cytokines in the blood and brain, leaving you with low-grade inflammation and ultimately a foggy brain, according to the wellness site Thorne. To experience less brain fog, you may need to cut back on the following common dietary culprits: refined sugars; vegetable oils; processed meats; and alcohol. In addition, it could be worth assessing whether you have any food allergies that may be contributing to brain inflammation.
4. Stop multitasking.
By now, there’s plenty out there to discredit the supposed benefits of multitasking. If anything, multitasking has only been linked to lower performance and attention spans: "People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory, or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time,” according to Stanford. If you’re experiencing brain fog and confusion, you might just be overloading yourself with stimuli. Try paring back and see if clarity comes any easier.
5. Drink less coffee.
When caffeine is such a tried-and-true means of chemically warding off brain fog, this may sound counterintuitive. But if you’ve become dependent on caffeine to the point that its withdrawal symptoms are regularly leaving you with brain fog, it’s probably high time to rethink your coffee habit. In fact, if you’re someone who “can’t function” without their morning coffee — know that it isn’t the release of caffeine in your system that’s helping normalize you. Rather, it’s the wearing off of caffeine’s chemical half-life in your system that makes you turn to coffee simply to level out the withdrawal symptoms.
“The cycle — they're called the pharmacokinetics — of caffeine seem very well synchronized to the circadian rhythms of the human body,” Michael Pollan told NPR’s Fresh Air. “Nobody feels like coffee in the middle of the night. But in the morning... they're beginning to go through that withdrawal. They're starting to feel a little off, that muzziness is coming in. Maybe they have a headache. Maybe they're a little irritable. And then they have that cup of coffee, and the pleasure they're getting from it, I learned, is not simply the lift, the euphoric lift of the drug; it's the suppression of these symptoms of withdrawal, and we go through that cycle.”
Coffee is also a double-edged sword in that it interferes with your body’s ability to achieve deep sleep, even many, many hours after your last cup. This lack of sleep can add to your feeling in the morning that coffee is required to achieve clearer thinking, which only further adds to the vicious cycle of brain fog. If you’ve developed too great a caffeine dependency to imagine life without coffee, it might be worth investigating less-caffeinated tea alternatives for your morning brew.