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Recognizing brain fog: 6 symptoms to watch out for

September 22, 2022 - 15 min read

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What does brain fog feel like?

What is brain fog a symptom of?

Brain fog after COVID

Brain fog treatment

Don’t let brain fog hold you down

“Brain fog” has become a buzz term lately. Since the start of the pandemic, public health officials have worked diligently to communicate the symptoms of COVID-19. And brain fog was a common (and surprising) one.

The pandemic might have been your first time learning about this cognitive condition. But it’s far from a new phenomenon. Doctors and scientists have investigated it for years and are aware of a few potential causes.

Stress and anxiety can wear you down and cause mental fatigue, making it harder to think, and hormonal imbalances due to menopause or pregnancy can be the culprit. Depending on your age, brain fog could be an early sign of Alzheimer’s disease or dementia.

It’s important to remember that “brain fog” isn’t a medical condition in itself. Rather, it refers to a set of symptoms that affect your ability to think, negatively affecting your work performance. For example:

  • You make small mistakes like forgetting email attachments
  • You leave typos in important documents
  • You have trouble motivating yourself to complete difficult tasks

A doctor will help you identify the cause of any brain health issues, but they’ll have to assess your symptoms first. Brain fog could indicate a more serious underlying condition. But cognitive function problems aren’t as easy to identify as a scraped knee or broken arm, so you’ll have to communicate your symptoms yourself. Then your doctor can help you decide on the next steps.

Here’s a look at the common brain fog symptoms. Pay attention to which ones you relate to so you can clearly communicate them to your health care professional.

What does brain fog feel like? 

Brain fog will feel different for everyone. But people usually report feeling less sharp than usual. Everyday activities require more effort than they would otherwise. The mind feels “hazy,” making it difficult to access your thoughts or plan ahead. You might also be more forgetful than normal and prone to confusion.

What are the symptoms of brain fog?

Your brain fog might look different from someone else’s. You might be tired and prone to confusion, while they might feel forgetful and unable to focus. Both can be considered cases of “brain fog,” even if they’re experienced differently. 

Here are some of the common symptoms to look out for:

1. Clouding of consciousness

This symptom is the “fog” in “brain fog.” It refers to your reduced ability to perceive, understand, and think clearly. You feel dissociated or distanced from reality and have difficulty responding to external events.

This can severely impact your day-to-day life. You may not hear someone when they talk to you or notice traffic when crossing the street. And, if you manage to snap out of it, you may not remember what happened during the clouded period.

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2. Fatigue

When you have chronic fatigue syndrome, you’re more than a bit sleepy. You’ll feel an ongoing sense of tiredness that interferes with your day-to-day life. No matter how much you sleep, you won’t shake this feeling of exhaustion.

Living with chronic mental fatigue can be debilitating. It ruins your concentration, exacerbates pain, and can hurt your social life. Over time, this can lead to:

  • Irritability
  • Loneliness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Depression

3. Confusion

When you’re confused, you’ll likely have a hard time focusing and making decisions. You may also feel disoriented, lost, and unable to turn thoughts into words.

Here are some common signs of confusion:

  • Slurring words
  • Pausing for a long time mid-speech
  • Abnormal or incoherent words and sentences
  • A missing sense of direction
  • Inability to track time
  • Sudden changes in emotion
  • Easily losing your train of thought

When you’re confused, you may need help completing daily tasks. It’s worth asking a loved one for assistance if you need it — at least until the confusion subsides.

4. Lack of focus

Focus is your ability to direct your attention to a single point rather than succumbing to external distractions. If you’re writing a screenplay in a coffee shop, focus helps you drown out the noise and stay on task.

People with brain fog are prone to a lack of focus. While working on a task, your mind might wander, or you might constantly gravitate toward your phone. Difficult tasks take more time because you can’t concentrate long enough to complete them.

This is particularly harmful when it comes to your productivity. You can’t make simple decisions anymore, you make small mistakes like forgetting email attachments, and you struggle to find the motivation to complete your work. Over time, these effects hurt your overall work performance.

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5. Difficulty concentrating

Concentration is your ability to immerse yourself in a task. You can stare at your screenplay forever, but you won’t make any progress unless you internalize and process what you’re reading. 

Brain fog can affect both your focus and concentration. That means you’re prone to distractions, unable to direct your attention at will. And even if you do, you have a hard time processing the information necessary to complete your task.

6. Forgetfulness

Memory lapses are normal once in a while. You might forget to pick something up at the store or leave your clothes in the washer overnight after it finishes.

But frequent forgetfulness can be scary. If you regularly forget to turn off the oven before leaving the house, you risk hurting yourself or others.

If you’re worried about your memory, consult your physician. They can connect with a memory specialist who can review your symptoms and test you for more serious types of cognitive impairment.

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What is brain fog a symptom of?

Occasional fuzziness and forgetfulness happen more often as you grow older. But the truth is, brain fog can happen to anyone, at any age, for any number of reasons. In fact, up to 600 million people worldwide experience this cognitive condition.

Once you communicate your cognitive symptoms to your doctor, they can put you on a path toward recovery. But your brain fog treatment will look different depending on its underlying cause.

Here are some common causes of brain fog: 

  • Not enough sleep. Bad sleep hygiene and a general lack of sleep can slow down your thoughts, hurt your working memory, and make learning difficult. 
  • Hormonal changes. Pregnancy and menopause can affect your energy levels and ability to focus. Usually, the effects are temporary as your body adjusts to a new normal.
  • Mental health disorders. Depression and anxiety can use up cognitive resources required for day-to-day living, leading to grogginess and brain fog.
  • Medications. Certain drugs have side effects that can affect cognitive performance. For example, people undergoing chemotherapy cancer treatments often report brain fogs symptoms (earning the nickname “chemo brain”).
  • Dementia/Alzheimer’s. Brain fog could be a sign of early-onset cognitive decline. 
  • Other medical causes. Anemia, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, thyroid issues, and various other health conditions can also affect your brain functions.

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Brain fog after COVID

When you have COVID-19, short-term symptoms such as headaches, coughing, and fevers usually last up to two weeks. But some people can experience lingering symptoms well beyond that point. In the case of brain fog, it can last between six weeks and a year after the initial infection — recategorizing your condition from “COVID” to “Long COVID.”

Researchers are slowly learning more about COVID’s effect on the brain. Some scientists suspect COVID-19 infects brain cells that support daily functioning

Other researchers attribute brain fog to a faulty immune response, where your body attacks its own brain tissue in addition to the virus itself. 

Brain fog could also be a product of bodily fatigue. Upon infection, your immune system requires extra energy to fight the virus, which leaves very little left over for regular brain activity. 

The severity and duration of your brain fog are usually linked to the severity of your initial infection. The more brutal your initial symptoms, the more time your body needs to recover.

COVID-19 can also put you at risk for post-COVID depressionhalf of COVID survivors struggle with this condition. If you’re worried about your mental health after recovering from the coronavirus, it’s worth reaching out to a mental health professional. They can help you overcome depressive symptoms causing brain fog. 

Brain fog treatment

A doctor will help you treat your brain fog symptoms, but the first step is to determine their underlying cause. “Chemo brain” will require a different approach from depression-related issues.

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In many cases, basic lifestyle changes should help you overcome the grogginess. Improving your sleep hygiene and reducing your stress levels can free up valuable energy to regain your mental clarity.

But you may require further testing if your doctor is concerned about an underlying condition. Especially if you’re a bit older, they may test you for early signs of Alzheimer’s disease or other types of memory loss.

Don’t let brain fog hold you down

It’s normal for brain fog symptoms to leave you feeling unlike yourself. They can take away your ability to do the things you love and focus on the work that’s most important to you.

But you can make this feeling temporary. Conditions like stress, anemia, and diabetes are manageable with some basic lifestyle changes and guidance from a health professional. And if you can clearly identify and communicate your symptoms, it will be easier for you to walk the path to wellness.

It may take a while before you feel like yourself again. But with a bit of patience and effort, we believe you’ll thrive in no time.

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Published September 22, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

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