Most of us have boldly walked into a room just to stop in our tracks, stare blankly around and think, “Why did I leave the comfort of my couch just to come stare at my bedroom?” Other thoughts might plague you like, “Where did I park my car? What was I going to say? Have I seen this movie? Did I brush my teeth this morning?”...
Usually, we can rationalize these occurrences. Maybe we didn’t sleep well the night before, or we might be having a super stressful week at work. However, if you are experiencing a little more than an occasional slip in memory, and doing things like scouring the parking lot for your car, getting halfway into a movie to then realize you’ve seen it before, or struggling to come up with a word in daily conversation, you may be suffering from something called brain fog.
Disclaimer: We didn’t go to medical school. Brain fog is a tricky symptom that can be annoying or debilitating depending on the severity. Talk to your doctor if you are experiencing brain fog to rule out underlying medical conditions.
What causes brain fog? Although not a medical condition in itself, brain fog can be a symptom of many different diagnoses, including chronic stress. Other causes can include medical conditions like postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), lyme disease, covid long-haulers, chronic fatigue syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, fibromyalgia, and other conditions.
According to the CDC, patients with chronic fatigue syndrome who experience brain fog may “have trouble thinking quickly, remembering things, and paying attention to details.” Triggers for brain fog can include fatigue, prolonged standing, dehydration, feeling faint, and lack of sleep according to a study done in 2014 that surveyed patients with POTS.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation is a technique that uses mindfulness and the tensing and relaxing muscle groups to reduce stress. Taking a few moments during the day or right before bed to practice this method can be an effective way to de-stress.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “in one method of progressive muscle relaxation, you start by tensing and relaxing the muscles in your toes and progressively working your way up to your neck and head. You can also start with your head and neck and work down to your toes. Tense your muscles for about five seconds and then relax for 30 seconds, and repeat.”
This relaxation technique takes practice, and some people find it helpful to use a guided practice. Take care not to strain your muscles during this relaxation technique—it shouldn’t hurt! Take slow, deep, even breaths, and (hopefully!) you’ll start to feel your tension melt away.
Autogenic training (AT) uses the power of (self) suggestion to help you relax. Instead of hypnosis (we all remember what happened to Chandler with his hypnosis tape) you can learn the set of “commands” to help your mind and body let go of stress. Practicing regularly can help you relax in times of stress. It might also help balance the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, although more research is needed.
Begin in a comfortable seated or supine position, then feel the sensations in your body. In your mind, you will then direct your body to feel certain feelings, such as “my right arm is heavy,” or “my breath is slow and steady.” Eventually, your body will start regulating its breath, blood pressure, heartbeat, and body temperature. Obviously, if you have high blood pressure or an irregular heartbeat, this is not a panacea. But for stress and anxiety purposes, and to ultimately rid yourself of brain fog, autogenic training might just do the trick!
Imagine your favorite place. It could be the beach at sunset, a patch of daffodils in spring, or your grandmother’s living room watching Wheel of Fortune. Whatever makes you feel serene and peaceful; that’s what we’re looking for with this relaxation technique. You can find a thorough run-through of guided imagery on Headspace, an app that was founded by a Buddist Monk, whose mission is, “to improve the health and happiness of the world.”
In short, guided imagery uses personalized images to engage the five senses and lead your body and mind to a place of total relaxation. You don’t just picture the beach, you use your imagination to feel the sand and the warmth of the sun, you hear the waves crashing, and smell the sunscreen—you get the picture. With time and practice, you can help ease stress and anxiety and hopefully feel more balanced and experience less brain fog.
The effects of yoga on the body and mind can be felt during and immediately after practice. After a particularly awesome savasana, you may have trouble opening your eyes and sitting up to even say, “namaste.” Effects of yoga on stress and anxiety are not surprising to most who have practiced yoga. The body/mind connection, slow movements, breathing techniques, and mindfulness all help promote relaxation and ease stress and anxiety.
We know using your senses can help you relax and de-stress. Your olfactory system shouldn’t be left out. Using essential oils and aromatherapy candles may help you relax, especially when used together with other relaxation techniques. Studies on the effects of aromatherapy and stress are somewhat sparse, but there is evidence that aromatherapy can improve your mood.
There is also a link between your olfactory system and the hippocampus—the part of your brain that stores memories. So, smelling something that has positive memories (chocolate chip cookies come to mind) can promote feelings of calm and relaxation. It could also be the placebo effect, but hey, as long as you feel good that’s really all that matters.
Other ways to help relieve stress in your daily life may include taking a warm bath, listening to music, reading a book, laughing, taking a walk, eating a well-balanced diet, getting a good night’s sleep, and avoiding caffeine. Although not an exhaustive list, these may help you to live a more balanced and less stressed life.
Finding positive ways to cope with brain fog and other symptoms of stress and anxiety is essential. Hopefully, when the dust settles on the strangest year of our lives, we can look back and say that we did our best. If not, that’s okay too. Be gentle and kind to yourself, especially if you are dealing with stress and anxiety.