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Brain Fog: Explaining the Fuzziness When Stress Meets COVID-19 Pandemic

February 15, 2021

We’ve all stood in a room wondering why we walked in, but when does such forgetfulness or inability to focus signify a problem? The answer is even more puzzling with pandemic-related stress giving our brains another challenge, according to Dr. Amy Sanders, director of the Memory Care Center with Hartford HealthCare’s Ayer Neuroscience Institute. “Stress is bad for brains,” she said. “The body is conditioned to protect itself and triggers release of higher levels of cortisol for a ‘fight or flight’ state. When stress does not abate, cortisol builds up in the brain and we’re left in a constant mild state of heightened awareness. That’s not healthy.” She describes it as the fuzziness you feel when very sleep-deprived. “You feel fuzzy, function slower than usual, have difficulty concentrating and multitasking,” Dr. Sanders said. While not a diagnosis, brain fog falls under the umbrella of “functional neurological disorders,” a growing subspecialty in neurology, she added. There’s overlap with psychiatry since it can trigger depression, anxiety and attention deficits. “In addition to stress, this fog can be exacerbated by lack of sleep, some medications and even menopause,” she said. “It’s important to address the problem and not just hope it will go away by itself. The good news, though, is that it’s doable.” Focusing on the stress can help relieve the resulting fog, Dr. Sanders said, suggesting:

  • Create and stick with a healthy sleep routine.
  • Make changes. Look at what causes you stress and see what you can do to reduce it, whether it’s handing a meeting off to a colleague or enlisting an older child to help a younger sibling with assignments. “Set reasonable expectations of yourself and set boundaries so you turn off work to focus on other things,” Dr. Sanders said.
  • Put the brakes on multitasking. It looks great on your resume, but consistently juggling multiple tasks naturally slows the brain down. Focus on one thing at a time.
  • Relax. Find healthy ways to cope with your stresses, like taking a walk in nature or deep breathing. Exercise naturally boosts the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain.
  • Shake things up. Your brain likes new things, so give it regular challenges even if it’s just driving a new route or using your non-dominant hand to brush your teeth.
  • Check your meds. Talk with your primary care physician to see if you’re taking anything that might make things worse for your brain.
“Depending on the individual, things like support groups or even cognitive behavioral therapy can also be helpful,” Dr. Sanders said. Medication, she added, is “very rarely relevant.” Signs that the brain fog might be more serious include having trouble remembering conversations with family and friends, experiencing symptoms such as pain or trouble balancing, or finding no relief with the suggestions above. At that point, Dr. Sanders suggested talking to your primary care physician.

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