Do you feel like your brain has “checked out”?
“I can’t think!”
“I feel like I’m in a brain fog.”
“I just can’t make any decisions—everything feels overwhelming right now.”
Have you caught yourself saying any of these statements lately? You’re not alone! During the last few months, we’ve all been dealing with many changes, stress, and confusion. Our brains are in overdrive, and many of us are starting to feel like we’re losing our minds.
Maybe our performance at work has declined. Perhaps we’re finding it tough to focus or challenging to stay on task. When we’re experiencing brain fog and decision fatigue, almost any job can feel overwhelming and hard to tackle. If you feel like your performance has been off track, here’s why it’s happening and what you can do about it!
Brain fog, confusion, discombobulation…call it what you will, but it’s essentially when our brains go offline. We can’t think. We may find ourselves forgetting what we were doing, losing focus, or getting easily distracted.
It seems many friends and colleagues lately are all experiencing a similar “mental block.” There have also been several recent articles highlighting what experts call decision fatigue. This common phenomenon is especially prevalent in times of stress (like we are all experiencing right now). It seems that brain fog has become an unforeseen side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic, even if you don’t contract the virus.
So why does this frustrating phenomenon happen? Why do our brains feel so dull and addled lately?
Our decision-making takes place in the area of the brain called the pre-frontal cortex. We may have heard that this area is responsible for “higher-level thinking” or executive functioning. In that part of our brains, we’re weighing out the risks, trying to predict what will happen as we move forward, based on experience. Our brain is a predictive organ—it feels comfortable putting situations in context and applying a similar response, expecting a similar outcome.
But we’re faced with a completely new situation. None of us have lived through a global pandemic like this before. It’s an unprecedented time, and it’s fraught with ambiguity and uncertainty. Not only does this mean we’re on guard, engaging the more primitive part of our brain that turns on our fight or flight response—the limbic system—but we’re also taking a lot of our mental and physical energy to process all of this brain function.
On top of our brains running in “overdrive mode” and throwing us into decision fatigue, we can’t implement our regular coping mechanisms. It seems there’s no escape to the usual activities that nourish us and help us bounce back from tough times.
In pre-COVID-19 life, we dealt with stressful situations by visiting a friend, grabbing coffee with a coworker, or visiting a parent. We also went to movies, attended concerts, and enjoyed theater productions. We enjoyed sports and spent time at the beach. Many of these activities aren’t possible at all or are significantly modified in this new normal. The disruption of our norms further compounds our confusion and stress.
So how do we manage? How do we cope with this brain fog and decision fatigue?
One of the most important things we can offer ourselves right now is self-compassion. For each of us, no matter our situation or circumstance, self-compassion is more crucial than ever to our wellbeing.
Now, self-compassion doesn’t necessarily mean a spa day, which might not be feasible at the moment. It doesn’t mean taking a vacation or eating a pint of ice cream in our PJs. We can practice self-compassion throughout our day in almost every situation. We can speak kindly to ourselves and give ourselves a break rather than beating ourselves up for mistakes.
Understanding that brain fog and decision fatigue is a natural, normal phenomenon we’re all experiencing right now may give us pause when we think, “I’m such an idiot!” Would we ever speak to our friends that way if they forgot an appointment or missed the mark? Of course not! Realizing we’re sharing a common disaster can help us have a little more compassion for ourselves. Recognize that what’s going on isn’t something “wrong with us.” This is part of dealing with the stress of the pandemic and current events.
We can speak to ourselves like a friend and even pause to give ourselves comfort. Put our hand over our hearts, and address ourselves by name, saying, “Everything is going to be okay. You are processing a lot of difficult thoughts right now, and you’re doing the best you can.” Touching our hearts or giving ourselves a brief scalp massage can help us soothe ourselves and raise those critical levels of oxytocin—the brain’s feel-good chemical. Soothing activities stimulate our vagus nerve, which calms us.
Another way to cope with brain fog is to avoid rumination. That means, stop the “doomsday scrolling,” where we focus on the news constantly and follow each distraction. Instead, come back to the present as much as possible.
Because things are uncertain, decision fatigue is prevalent. We only have so many resources in our frontal lobe to make decisions. We get tired and quickly use up our energy. So, our brain activity wanders off to where we don’t need to be super “conscious” of our activities.
Think of it this way—if we took a very challenging math test, we would have to focus on the test. After the test, if we were offered an apple or a piece of chocolate cake, we would be much more likely to choose the cake. Why? Because it required all our willpower to focus on the math test, and we’re left without the energy to make good choices. Then, because we have a sugar crash, we get even foggier. When we aren’t making clear, good choices, we need to “reboot” our brains.
Take a deep breath. Touch our face with our hands. Put a hand on our heart, a hand on our tummy. When we do this, it brings us back to the present moment and stimulates our parasympathetic nerve system, bringing us a sense of calm and peace.
We can also practice mindfulness by grounding ourselves. Feel the floor beneath our feet. Identify what we can smell, what we can feel, see, hear, and even taste. Some find it useful to identify two or three of each sensory trigger. This helps us come back to the room and realize that we are okay at the present moment.
In our classes at the Wright Foundation, we often discuss the importance of our emotions. We’re fond of the saying, “Name it to tame it.” When we’re unsure what we’re feeling or feeling out-of-control, acknowledging our emotions can help us process them and really feel them.
Many of us may find ourselves avoiding our emotions right now. We’re trying to stay strong for our kids. We’re trying to brush off our irritation with our spouse. We may find ourselves feeling sad about parents we can’t see, family members who are ill, or friends who are suffering.
It’s okay to feel a wide range of emotions right now. Every emotion is essential, from fear to sadness, hurt to anger. We may even feel joy. Perhaps we enjoy staying home and spending more time with our spouse, but we feel a little guilty when everyone else is suffering. There’s no wrong or right way to feel right now. We don’t need to feel bad if our job is continuing to thrive, our kids love online school, or we’re soaking up the extra time with our partner.
Acknowledging our emotions, good, bad, and in-between, is essential. If we aren’t sure what we’re feeling, our body can offer clues. Tension may appear as a heaviness in the chest or shortness of breath—meaning maybe you feel anger, sadness, or fear. We may find that our jaw hurts, our limbs feel tired, or we have a headache. Ask about the root cause. Is there an emotional component?
Go ahead and feel emotions fully. Cry! Laugh! Yell! This is a new situation for all of us, and there’s no wrong or right way to feel about it.
To combat brain fog, we need nourishment. We should get plenty of rest, eat healthy, nourishing foods, and find time to get outdoors. A simple walk or bike ride in the park can help us feel renewed and refocused. It’s all about finding activities that elevate us and help us reconnect with ourselves.
Some of us may find that listening to an uplifting or relaxing piece of music, reading a great book, journaling, or drawing can help us feel refreshed and renewed. Learning gives us a sense of purpose, so consider taking a course online or participating in a webinar. Our foundation is offering access to an array of courses and webinars right now online. Explore the options because so many of them are crucial to meet this moment.
When we take time for nourishment and self-compassion, we bring our thoughts back online and feel refreshed. Rather than engaging in timewasters like online shopping, Netflix binging, or reading the comment section on social media, find activities that bring joy and a sense of purpose.
It’s also important to remember that even if we’re socially distanced, we can still find ways to connect with our loved ones. Reach out to friends and family online or pick up the phone for a call. Many of us are struggling during this time, and it’s those critical social connections that can help us break through the brain fog and foster a sense of wellbeing.
Most importantly, don’t be too self-critical over a “foggy brain.” We’re all experiencing this commonality because this past year has been a new experience for each of us. There’s no wrong or right way to deal with such extraordinary circumstances. Continue to practice self-compassion and kindness. It may take some time before we adjust to this new normal, and that’s perfectly okay.
If you’re working through feelings of brain fog right now, reach out. We have many resources and events that can help you connect with others and feel less alone. We’re all in this time together, and we’re here to help each other make it, though, not only to survive but to thrive.