How To Overcome Anxiety Brain Fog

Photo by Jared Rice on Unsplash

Anxiety is a complex brain-body system that has evolved over millions of years to help ensure our survival. Sometimes the symptoms of anxiety can meld with other symptoms to create a composite experience some people call anxiety brain fog.

The experience of anxiety following a stressful event operates uniquely in the brain. In its most extreme form, anxiety sets the body up for “fight or flight.” This autonomic threat response is sensitive, fast and decisive, and, in times of extreme danger, operates outside our awareness by preparing the body to take action. Think of this threat response as the “gas pedal” of the nervous system.

Less severe anxiety operates similarly, but with less overall physiological arousal. New research suggests the stress response may have more to do with directing our attention and prioritizing resources than with generating fear. This can be helpful in all ranges of the anxiety response, especially when striving to capitalize on its benefits.

Most of us think of anxiety in terms of the familiar symptoms of worry, racing thoughts, overthinking, fear, and restlessness.

Brain fog, by comparison, is associated with seemingly opposite symptoms: a slowing down of thinking and processing, a sensation of “not being sharp,” and a sense of being “off” while not being able to correct it.

Does brain fog cause anxiety? Or does anxiety cause brain fog?

So how do these two seemingly disparate neurological experiences become entangled to create one inseparable experience of anxiety brain fog?

Brain fog with anxiety may happen because the symptoms of one cause the symptoms of the other, creating an escalating, reinforcing feedback loop. While there can be serious medical conditions that underlie brain fog, the effects of stress and sleep loss can bring it on as well.

Without an outlet for its energy, wrestling with anxiety can be mentally exhausting and brain fog can accompany this cognitive fatigue. Even the perception of mental fatigue can bring on symptoms of brain fog, making a struggle with anxiety and stress even more difficult.

When anxiety is already present, the ruminating, worry and racing thoughts literally exhaust the mind. Brain fog can take over with all its deficiencies in alertness and processing skills. The unfamiliarity is frightening, and a heightened level of anxiety ensues. And then more brain fog. It can feel like a vicious cycle.

Symptoms of anxiety brain fog include:

  • difficulty concentrating and focusing
  • unclear thoughts
  • short-term memory problems
  • difficulty reasoning logically
  • difficulty processing information
  • difficulty following instructions
  • feeling “off” and unable to correct

The important takeaway here is that mental fatigue is at the heart of anxiety brain fogIf not reined in, anxiety can “take over” the brain, bathing it in stress hormones and exhausting it. Brain fog can be quick to follow.

Important brain chemicals that are activated under stress and moderate anxiety include:

  • cortisol: supplies energy-enhancing glucose to the brain and protects the immune system
  • dopamine: focuses our attention and motivates us to act
  • oxytocin: orients us toward others and helps regulate the stress response

Shy of a full threat response, anxiety can be arousing, motivating and purposeful without being overwhelming. In other words, we can be anxious without having our threat system (fight or flight) fully activated. This is the kind of anxiety that is correlated with optimal functioning and focus. 

When the stress hormones cortisol, adrenaline and/or norepinephrine are present for too long or in excessive quantities, they overwhelm and exhaust the brain. And this state of fatigue is where brain fog enters the loop of anxiety brain fog.

What can you do to clear out your anxiety brain fog?

  1. Find the source of your anxiety 

    When you identify and understand the underlying message of the anxiety that has led to you feeling foggy, you can address the issue instead of letting it stew any longer.

  2. Do something you enjoy 

    Since brain fog is the result of mental exhaustion doing something you enjoy can shift the chemistry of your brain and help you to regain some clarity.

  3. Self-care 

    Soothing rituals like a hot bath, sauna or massage promote circulation and relax muscles, which can in turn soothe our minds. A cup of hot tea, soaking up some sunshine, or simply hugging someone are some of our grandparents’ favorite calming rituals, and they still work today. 

  4. Practice mindfulness 

    Mindfulness-based stress reduction, as explained in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living, is a practice of being aware of what’s happening with curiosity rather than judgment. It is simply the act of tuning into what’s happening in your individual world at any given time – even when what’s happening is brain fog. 

  5. Check your physical needs for hunger, thirst, moving your bodyI call exercise, sleep and nutrition the big three of physical needs. They have been repeatedly linked to cognitive control as well as emotional regulation. Giving your body what it needs to function well can help lift fogginess.
  6. Take a break 

    Forcing doesn’t always make things better. Often it compounds our issues or traps us into rigid thinking. This is true of anxiety-based brain fog as well. Unfortunately, there is a culture out there telling us we simply need to force ourselves through our fears, and then all will be better. This simply is not the case. Taking a break and treating yourself with compassion will help your mind to function more clearly. 

  7. Practice gratitude 

    Gratitude helps us see that we are supported and affirmed by others, and it underscores a sense of connection that strengthens us. This can help pull us out of our immediate feelings and add width and depth to our perceptions. Gratitude is not just about counting our blessings, it’s about digging further into our experience of our blessings, the source of them, and the interconnectedness of all of us.

Each of these techniques can help clear your thinking when you notice that you’re suffering from brain fog. However, the most helpful thing you can do is prevent brain fog from appearing in the first place.

What, then, are some specific ‘brain hacks’ you can use to mitigate anxiety and keep it at an optimal level instead of exhausting you?

  1. Embrace anxiety as a resource.

The number-one strategy I recommend for keeping anxiety manageable is to understand what it is: a powerful source of information and energy.

When you can view anxiety as a resource, you open yourself up to how it can help you. You can stop being afraid of it and can use it, rather than driving it up.

Feeling a flutter in your stomach as you think about that tough conversation you need to have with your friend? Recognize it’s trying to signal something that matters to you, and allow it to motivate you to stay alert and focused.

  1. Aim to keep anxiety moderate.

Anxiety isn’t a bad thing; in fact, far from it. Moderate anxiety has long been correlated with optimal performance. It is easy to mistake the discomfort of anxiety for danger, but fundamentally anxiety is there to help. It isn’t a bad thing as long as you keep it moderate and useful – something you can ensure by not being afraid of it.

If you are afraid of anxiety, you will fight and escalate it. Fearing anxiety can drive it into threat-response territory, which makes it harder to utilize effectively.

Feeling anxious about meeting that deadline at work? Rather than succumbing to the panic feelings brewing about crunch-time, use the power of your anxiety to focus and motivate you to the finish line.

  1. Reframe how you label anxiety.

Understanding that anxiety isn’t a bad thing can set you up to take an even bolder step in embracing it as something positive. Research on emotional construction shows that we actually control how and what we feel by how we label the feeling.

So next time you are feeling anxious about something important that you care about, recognize your anxiety as a “care expression,” and push that sentiment further: I am anxious about my loved one’s health because I care deeply about him/her, and am motivated to do what I can to help. 

And there is the classic example of reframing acute anxiety over public speaking or test-taking: I am excited to have the opportunity to share what I know…and I am ready for this! 

  1. Rest

There is really no better salve for a tired, overwhelmed brain than rest. Sleep might be one of the most important things we can do for our brain, and our mental health. Science continues to show the manyadvantages of sleep, along with the disadvantages of inadequate sleep especially when it comes to anxiety.

Prioritizing restorative sleep might be one of the most adaptive things you can do when it comes to brain fog and anxiety. Set out to get at least 7.5 hours per night, more if you wake up not feeling refreshed. If you have trouble falling or staying asleep, talk to your doctor about medications that could help.

So, despite the complexity of the brain-body system’s anxiety response and the challenges of avoiding anxiety brain fog, the keys to coping with and managing anxiety as a tool that you use to enhance every facet of your life are fairly simple and easy to implement.

 

Looking for more help managing anxiety? Check out my online interactive Hack Your Anxiety Accelerator based on my bestselling book, Hack Your Anxiety. Using exercises and simple explanations, this 6 module course will furnish you with the tools you need to fast-track taking control of anxiety right now. Offered at a huge discount for a limited time, claim your spot here.

Photo credit: Jared Rice on Unsplash

 

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD

14 Comments

  1. mary t on June 16, 2019 at 8:21 am

    wonderful! Just what I am thinking.

  2. Taylor Bishop on June 26, 2019 at 10:48 am

    I wanted to thank you for writing about dealing with anxiety brain fog. It’s interesting to learn that moderate anxiety is correlated with optimal performance. That said, it sounds important to understand how to manage and control the anxiety so it can be a more positive influence in your life.

  3. lee on July 24, 2019 at 8:59 pm

    Thanks for sharing such a valuable article. Keep up your good work!

  4. Susie on November 26, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    Knowing something was ‘way off’ made me think the cancer had spread to my brain. I didn’t feel comfortable telling anyone, even my oncologist. Your article helped me tremendously.

    • Judith on February 2, 2020 at 3:33 pm

      Thanku I think my cancer has spread but I think it’s the stress

  5. Jason on February 8, 2020 at 12:46 pm

    You really hit the nail on the head with all of the symptoms of brain fog that you listed. They describe exactly how I feel. I even have trouble explaining how I feel to someone. That alone makes me feel even more helpless. You definitely pointed me in the right direction. Thank you

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on February 15, 2020 at 9:57 pm

      So glad you found the article and that it was helpful.

    • Braden on May 20, 2020 at 6:56 pm

      I relate to this as well I also keep blaming my hypertension or other things and I have a small surgery coming up soon nervous and I work I’m young as can be and am a father I just have these things going on and I have depression and anxiety and it’s way out of control just last week started taking Prozac again and I’m all out of order I feel fake as if I’m in a dream state of mind at times and my anxiety is not as much as it was but still there when it hits it hits hard and all but I relate to a lot of this any advice because sometimes I feel as if I’m literally going crazy but I’m not

  6. Addy on February 19, 2020 at 10:20 am

    This is been so helpful to me. I suffer from anxiety and I have been in a fog for over a week and I truly thought something was wrong with me. I am slowly becoming less foggy each day but finding it hard to engage my brain to do hard thinking tasks (like playing games that used to be easy or even trying to tackle work). I am feeling less anxious, do you suggest my hormones may be out of wack? Thank you

  7. Kim Spencer on March 19, 2020 at 9:56 pm

    On March 22 my son will have dealt with “brain fog” for an entire year after quitting chew through acupuncture. So much so that he can’t drive due to the fog~ vision is blurry, ringing in his ears, vertigo 24/7. He was healthy till this. He needed/wanted to quit chew as he was going to be enrolling in the police academy & they don’t allow tobacco use. His life has basically been put on hold due to this. I’m at a loss to help him. I pray for relief every day for him. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Alicia H. Clark, PsyD on April 26, 2020 at 10:32 pm

      Oh Kim, I’m so sorry to learn about your son. While there may be some underlying anxiety that the nicotine was helping, it doesn’t sound like his brain fog is anxiety related, but instead that he is having a medical issue. Anxiety brain fog doesn’t cause blurred vision, ringing ears, or vertigo. If he isn’t already, I would suggest he work with his physician to work toward symptom relief. There are excellent treatments for vertigo.
      Best of luck to you and your son,
      Alicia

      • Shahrukh on May 12, 2020 at 6:50 pm

        Does anyone also feel speech problem due to brain fog

      • Emma on September 25, 2020 at 10:36 am

        Sorry but brain fog may not cause these symptoms but anxiety definitely does!! While I don’t know if this guy’s issues are anxiety or a medical condition, telling him anxiety doesn’t cause these symptoms is really unhelpful for his future recovery should he come back with a physically clean bill of health.

  8. Supplements for Foggy Brain on September 21, 2020 at 1:44 am

    Nice post! I really appreciate your writing skills. I have loved your article.

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