It’s key to note that you can experience brain fog even if you don’t meet the full criteria for a mental health diagnosis, Green says. Feeling pretty mentally foggy right now doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental health condition. Given the circumstances, it’s really only to be expected.
Why might brain fog be happening to you right now?
“The [new coronavirus] is pulling our attention towards issues directly impacting our survival: our health and wellness, ability to support ourselves, and our social connectivity,” Green explains, adding that this leaves very little extra energy for things that “our brain may experience as less urgent or necessary.” On any given day, brain fog could be easily triggered due to stress, grief, and trauma. If you were already dealing with brain fog sometimes before the pandemic, it could be intensified right now. With COVID-19 activating our fear and stress responses, we might not have a lot of leftover energy for the email on which we were cc’d.
Though frustrating, experts view brain fog as a defense mechanism, at least when it comes to stress in particular. When we’re stressed, our bodies secrete cortisol and adrenaline, which help us react appropriately to a perceived threat, but that stress can cause a range of cognitive challenges (like slowed concentration, decision-making, and processing). That might sound counterintuitive for survival, but it’s your brain’s way of trying to conserve as much energy as possible for the very act of survival above all. “Brain fog may be a way for our brains to keep functioning … while sacrificing the sharpness needed for higher-level cognitive tasks,” Green says.
Beyond that, you might be experiencing intense brain fog if you’ve been robbed of your usual methods for relieving stress or are unable to adhere to your normal routines—things that typically help us manage our emotions. It’s no wonder that as your normal life continues to change, it might be more difficult to focus and get things done, which can impact your motivation and self-confidence, Fraga says.
In short, if you’re experiencing brain fog in this particular moment, it’s a normal response to all of the events unfolding around you.
How should you discuss brain fog at work?
If brain fog is impacting your performance at work, Green says it’s best to address it head-on. “If you have a good working relationship with your boss … being upfront and honest is your best bet,” she says. She suggests letting your manager know that you’re feeling mentally fatigued, and also trying to come up with a few actionable ways to handle your brain fog at work.
“It’s best to go into the conversation with a sense of what you need,” Green explains. “Do you just want some support and validation? Are you needing extra time to work on a project? Are you looking for a little less volume of work?” Figuring out and expressing exactly what you think would help shows your boss that you’re looking for a solution, which could go a long way in maintaining a good professional relationship while you work through brain fog.
If your relationship with your boss does not have that baseline trust or comfort level, explaining this could feel more difficult. That doesn’t mean, however, that you shouldn’t express your concerns. “You may not get from them what you need,” Green says, but no matter what happens, you’re justified in asking for support.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking it over with your manager, you might try to get some extra rest whenever you can (even if it’s a short break) to compensate for your fogginess. You might also try taking extra time each day to organize your schedule or rework your to-do list so that you’re prioritizing your most important tasks. None of these things will rid you of your brain fog, but they might help make you feel a bit more supported during this time. And if there’s a coworker you trust who you think will be able to offer some advice and strategies so you don’t have to think it through on your own, talking with them might also be an option.
Is it possible to manage brain fog?
The short answer is: yes. Green says strengthening your cognition might require some trial and error, and this is particularly true during a pandemic, when normal habits and routines have been disrupted. That said, there are a few things you might try to help you think a bit more clearly.