Of all the amorphous ailments that plague us from time to time, brain fog is one of the most frustrating. Though its symptoms can be difficult to pinpoint, a bout of brain fog is the sensation that your mind isn’t working on full power, generally marked by thoughts that feel slower than usual. If you’re working on a problem, for instance, brain fog might make it harder to stay on top of a train of thought from start to finish. That fuzzy feeling in your skull can’t be banished with a simple Ibuprofen or cup of coffee, and, even more frustratingly, it can be difficult to pinpoint the cause.
For many parents, brain fog is all too common. The challenges of parenting are uniquely primed to cause the sort of cognitive overload that experts identify as a common precursor to brain fog. With the exception of a few specific medical conditions and medications, stress is the primary cause of most cases of brain fog. And in an era where high stress levels abound, the unique difficulties of caring for a child during the COVID-19 pandemic have made parents one of the most stressed-out groups of all. At the same time, brain fog has emerged as one of the most ubiquitous symptoms of both long-haul COVID and the social isolation and trauma of life during a pandemic, and that doesn’t just go away when COVID case levels fall.
Even though you might not be able to run from a headspace that puts your focus on the fritz, there are some tactics you can use when you feel an episode coming on. Here are some of our favorite ways to get rid of brain fog.
“Parents are often multitasking a lot and balancing a lot of competing demands. Those are the kinds of things that can make brain fog feel really challenging,” says Nada Goodrum, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of South Carolina who studies families and stress. Our brains are really bad at trying to split focus, and trying to do so can cause them to short-circuit and take a one-way trip into the fog.
Although eliminating multitasking altogether is an unrealistic goal for most parents, especially with kids spending more time at home during the pandemic, Goodrum stresses the importance of making smaller changes where possible. “It can be really tempting to, for example, check your phone when you’re with your kids, but even just those short bursts of dividing our attention and switching back and forth can make brain fog a lot worse,” she says.
Look for the spots in your family’s routine where you can make tweaks to your multitasking habits, and your brain will thank you.
Take a 5-Minute Movement Break
Regular exercise keeps your brain and body in shape, but fighting off brain fog doesn’t even require breaking a sweat. Research has repeatedly found that getting up for a single activity session as short as a five-minute walk can immediately improve cognitive function. One of the best ways movement helps the brain is by sharpening memory, which just so happens to be one of the primary targets of COVID-induced brain fog.
For an extra boost, skip the office laps and take your break with a side of springtime air. A study published last fall by researchers at Harvard’s Healthy Buildings program looked at office workers in six different countries and found that regularly sucking in hours of workplace air was tied to difficulties concentrating and solving problems. Meanwhile, going outside can turn around some cognitive metrics in as little as 15 minutes.
Know Your Body’s Stress Response
In most healthy adults, brain fog is usually caused by neuroinflammation, says Karan Kverno, Ph.D., an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Nursing who’s written about the biological roots of brain fog. Viruses, injuries, aging, and more can cause neuroinflammation, but so can stress, she says.
Stress is known to weaken most elements of the immune system, but it can have an almost opposite effect on the brain’s virus fighters. “Cells in the brain called microglia help kick up all the dead viruses. But without viruses around, they start to attack some of the normal cells,” Kverno explains. Over time, microglial neuroinflammation can become pretty serious — once it begins to affect the brain permanently, it’s one of the key biological markers of dementia.
One of the best ways to stop a neuroinflammatory response before it starts is to pay attention to other signs of stress in the body, says Kverno. “Tension, or stomachaches, or headaches — those are all symptoms that can be stress-related when they’re not caused by something diagnosable,” she says.
If brain fog is a regular problem, consider keeping a journal of other stress symptoms you experience within the days before an episode — you might spot some patterns you didn’t know were there. Once you’re able to tell when the physical effects of stress are taking a toll on you, you can force a bit of relaxation to reign it back in and stop brain fog before it begins.
Skip Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine may seem like the solution to shifty focus, but if you’re guzzling cup after cup of coffee, it could also be the culprit. Caffeine elevates the body’s secretion of cortisol, the hormone that determines our stress levels. In large doses, caffeine can set off the biological chain reactions that lead to brain fog. In fact, regular coffee drinkers, even those who drink moderate amounts, often report higher levels of stress than people who don’t drink caffeine as frequently.
Alcohol consumption can also gum up the brain in multiple ways, primarily by slowing down cognition. Though you might think a night of drinking hasn’t affected you if you wake up without a hangover, there’s evidence that the depressant can still negatively affect everything from your attention span to your working memory the day after a binge. Better to lay off the booze if you’re looking for focus.
Hit the Hay
Although it’s less of a quick fix, there’s no way around it — sleep is one of the biggest determinants of the ability to stay sharp. Sleep deprivation can cause hormonal shifts that leave you uniquely vulnerable to neuroinflammation and the fogginess that comes with it. And if your immune system actually is fighting something larger off, sleep can only help.
Don’t Try All These Tricks at Once
When attacking brain fog, Goodrum recommends picking just one area to start working on, in order to give yourself the best shot at forward momentum. “Sleep is a great one, because you’re going to get a pretty good bang for your buck if you can start sleeping seven to nine hours a night,” she says.
If sleep isn’t the low-hanging fruit for you (like most parents), Goodrum suggests asking yourself, ‘What is one area I can tackle?’ “If you can make one change and see that you’re feeling better, and the fog is beginning to clear, that can give you that confidence boost that you need to keep going.”