Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative
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Brain Fog: Coping Strategies for When You Can’t Concentrate

Brain fog is one of those often overlooked symptoms of a maternal mental illness that can cause you an incredible amount of frustration.

And just like other symptoms of illnesses like depression and anxiety, brain fog can look different for everyone. Because it doesn’t fit with symptoms we typically associate with depression or anxiety, it may go unnoticed or because it affects your ability to concentrate and remember things, you might not even think to talk about it.

You might have noticed that your memory isn’t what it used to be and things that should be second nature are now are harder to remember, like names, faces, and places. Before you could manage multiple things on your to-do list without breaking a sweat and now you’re not only checking that list over and over, you can’t focus long enough to get anything done. Maybe you feel like you’re literally in a fog and your brain REFUSES to move faster, despite three cups of coffee before 7am.

Trouble With Concentration

When I was in the thick of my postpartum depression, I knew I had a problem when it took me over two hours to make a pot of soup that I had made countless times before. I would get halfway through reading the recipe and get distracted by intrusive thoughts, or start rummaging around the fridge for ingredients that I’d already chopped and put into the pot. A few days later when trying to write a paper for grad school that should have taken half a day, I spent over 15 hours in my office trying to write while battling constant distraction. My brain fog made me feel like there were actually cobwebs in my head and trying to push through them caused me intense anxiety.

Coping Strategies

I still battle brain fog as a symptom of fibromyalgia, an ongoing chronic illness marked by pain, sleep problems and difficulties with concentration and memory. While it can be frustrating to know that I can’t rely on my memory like I once did, I’ve developed my own set of coping strategies that give me control over my day and the lengthy to-do list that I always seem to have. Give some or all of these a try to help bring a bit or order to your day.

1. Adjust Your Expectations

Depending on the severity of your brain fog and the symptoms you’re experiencing, you might have to dramatically shift what it is that you’re trying to get done. It’s perfectly okay if your goal for the day is to get downstairs and eat a piece of toast. Remember that mental illnesses take a considerable amount of time and self-care to recover from. Take each day one at a time and change your expectations of yourself.

2. Be Kind to Yourself

If you’re the kind of woman that flies from one project, meeting or play date to another and usually doesn’t miss a step, experiencing brain fog might feel like you’ve lost a part of your identify. Remember this is temporary and that you must show yourself patience and compassion. Pushing yourself to do more or to try and make up for lost time will probably set you back.

3. Tell Others About Your Brain Fog

Trying to manage brain fog and its accompanying symptoms completely on your own is possible, but talking about it helps considerably. Talk to your partner, friends, family, co-workers, your manager – really anyone who you interact with on a regular basis – and share about some of your symptoms. Only disclose what you’re comfortable with but let people know that sometimes you need a bit more time to get stuff done or that they may need to repeat things more than once. Remind them that you’re paying attention but that you’re also otherwise engaged with what’s going on in your head.

4. Make Lists, Lots of Lists

This is an obvious one, but I can’t stress this one enough. Depending on how you organize your day or your tasks, you may want to keep one big to-do list or separate lists for each part of your life. While it’s easy to jot notes down on your SmartPhone, try getting into the habit of physically writing down what you want to accomplish. Your brain will remember better those things that are actually written down; there’s an entire area of neuroscience that explores the how the brain records and stores information, and there is direct connection between the tactile act of writing and how your brain stores this information.

5. Find Apps To Help You Remember

This can be a bit of a catch 22 because constant reminders and notifications from your phone can be really distracting. If you can find apps that help you remember important actions or activities that you need to do with minimal intrusion into your daily routine, these can be a lifesaver. I’ve found a great app called Round that I use to track my medications and supplements. It sends me reminders to take them in the morning and before bed. Depending on what you want help with there is likely to be an app for it out there somewhere.

6. Give Up Being A Great Multi-Tasker

There’s more and more evidence that multitasking is actually counterproductive because our brains can really only focus on one task at a time. Give up trying to do two or more things at once because chances are this is only contributing to your brain fog. Concentrate on one task at a time and focus on getting it done. This will not only reduce the amount of time you spend on a single task, you’re also going to do a better job and it will give you a sense of accomplishment.

7. Give Meditation or Mindfulness a Try

While both mindfulness and meditation are buzzwords right now, I’ve benefited from starting and trying to keep a regular meditation practice. Some days are complete disasters, with my mind jumping all over the place, while others I actually feel like I’m able to get above the noise and just sit with my mind and body at rest. The regular practice of these techniques will give you the tools to manage brain fog when it strikes and also will help you cultivate more compassion for yourself. I love the app Headspace and I’ve been using it for years. It makes meditation really accessible, and the calming vibes of founder Andy’s voice as he leads you through mediation exercises is something I’ve come to rely on.

8. Rest and Get Proper Sleep

A lack of real downtime and a full night of sleep is only going to make brain fog worse. I have trouble shutting things down at night and often find that as soon as my head hits the pillow I want to talk about my day or try and problem solve. If I let these habits runaway with themselves night after night, I end up an exhausted, cranky and extremely forgetful. Try and develop a night time routine that helps you to shut things down and get into bed at a decent time.

9. Take a Look at Your Diet and Nutrition

It seems that diet and nutrition can be linked to a multitude of mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression, and what you eat can have a direct impact on how your brain functions. I know that I’ve benefited immensely from a ketogenic diet that’s seen me reduce the amount of carbs I eat to around 50g per day. This may seem drastic and unsustainable, but I’ve been very careful to change my diet in consultation with my doctor and did a lot of research before making changes. My brain fog has significantly improved by cutting the carbs and adding lots of high fat food to my diet. Explore what it is that you’re eating and pay attention to how you feel afterwards. It may be that there are certain foods making your brain operate at less than full capacity.

10. Look at the Side Effects of Any Medications

Many antidepressants, antianxiety and antipsychotic medications can have side effects that make brain fog worse. If you’ve recently started a new medication, give yourself at least a full week to see if symptoms improve. You may want to make notes about how you’re reacting to a medication, especially if your ability to concentrate or remember things is affected. Talk to your doctor about these side effects, especially if they’re impacting your ability to function. You may also be in the same boat as I am, where the side effects are much easier to manage than trying to live life without medication.

With a bit of planning and showing yourself compassion and understanding, you can find effective ways to cope with brain fog. While it’s frustrating, remember that in most cases it’s only temporary. Be patient with yourself and develop your own toolkit of strategies that work for you and your situation.

Shannon Hennig is the Program Director of the Maternal Mental Health Research Collaborative.