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The reason why your brain’s so foggy right now, according to a neurologist

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsMay 11, 2020

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Yesterday morning, I spent a solid five minutes staring at the word “spaghetti.” I was writing an article for work, and my brain suddenly could not verify that (yes, indeed!) there is an “h” after the “g” in the pasta shape that goes into everyone’s favorite Italian dish. The brain fog had already rolled at 10 in the gosh darn morning—and neurologist Priyank Khandelwal, MBBS, assistant professor in neurology at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says there’s a legit, life-affirming reason so many of our minds feel like pea soup these days.

“In medical terms, you can boil down ‘brain fog’ into a few things,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “When somebody’s feeling more anxious, and more distracted as a result, then they may feel like they have more of a lack of energy than they do on normal days. That’s what some people describe as brain fog.”

On a chemical level, brain fog happens when the stress hormone, cortisol, impairs the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that controls most of our cognitive functions like decision-making and concentration. (Basically, your body’s flight-or-flight response doesn’t want you to analyze a stressful situation when you’re in danger—it just wants you to run.) Both acute and long-lasting instances of stress keep the prefrontal cortex from doing its job properly—and your brain might feel unclear as a result.

Long story, short: Anxiety takes a lot of mental juice, and in the time of COVID-19, our brains are running on fumes. Constant worry about the virus has become an uninvited guest into our quarantine—and it’s really only being amplified by the fact that we can’t connect with others outside of video chat, we’re grappling with the fear being laid off or making ends meet after being laid off, and our routines at large have been upended. It’s no wonder that people are feeling anxious and thus potentially foggy and sluggish as a result.

“When people are at home and they feel restricted, that can make someone low-energy and even depressed. That’s what we’ve been seeing in some of our patients—especially people with a history of depression or anxiety,” adds Dr. Khandelwal.

Nan Wise, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist, says that beyond stress, our brains might also feel foggy right now because we’re no longer using them in the way they’re designed to be used: to take in and react to new information. Regions of the brain like the occipital lobe (which accepts new visual information) and the temporal lobe (which picks up on things you hear) don’t need to work as hard because your surroundings and habits aren’t changing day-by-day when you’re sheltering in place, says Dr. Wise. “The brain is a habit-making machine. So when we’re in habits, when we’re doing the same thing in the same way, it’s really easy [for the brain] to go into automatic pilot,” she says.

There are many things outside of our control right now; we can’t just magically make COVID-19 go away or resume our normal lives. But there are some ways to combat the pandemic-induced brain fog if it’s getting in your way. For starters, take care of your brain health with small, everyday actions like drinking lots of water, eating well, managing your stress, and trying to get enough sleep. They sound simple, but Dr. Khandelwal says that caring for your baseline well-being can go a long ways towards supporting your cognitive health.

Dr. Khandelwal also believes that clearing the fog so many of us feel right now hinges on our ability to accept and adapt to our new (albeit temporary) reality. “Now, more data is coming to suggest that [the pandemic] may linger on for some time,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “Once people accept this reality, that this is going to be over lifestyle at least for a few months, they’ve reached a feeling of acceptance. And then you get more clear in your thoughts and you start to make the best of the situation.”

Obviously, acceptance doesn’t come overnight and it doesn’t come without hard work. In the meantime, Dr. Khandelwal says it’s helpful to create a new routine to help your life feel full and “normal,” rather than a series of days spent in a fugue state. Make time for a breakfast you love, fake your commute to work so you get to listen to your favorite podcast, keep your therapy appointments to stay in tune with your mental wellness, play games with friends, etc. It’ll help you better adjust to (and accept) your new normal for what it is.

However, while routines can be comforting (and helpful!) during this time period, Dr. Wise encourages everyone to pick up a few new habits in order to keep your brain on its toes. “What we want to do is create new healthy habits where we’re prioritizing connections with ourselves and each other,” she says. (So maybe enlist your quarantine-mate in the ravioli-making.)

She also encourages everyone to get out into the sunshine for at least two, 15-minute breaks each day (with your sunscreen and face mask, of course). “Sunlight goes right into the back of the eye to the hypothalamus, which is the master of everything in your body: mood, food, sleep, sex. Everything is regulated by the hypothalamus,” Dr. Wise says.

Your biggest responsibility for the months ahead (besides properly social distancing) is to care for your brain. Sorry to be cheesy, but right now, you kinda have to step out into the sunshine and be your own lighthouse shining through all your own mental fog.

This piece was published on May 11, 2020. It was updated on May 12, 2020.

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