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.
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 fog. If 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, 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.
2. 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.
3. 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!
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 with anxiety? Check out my new book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for book bonuses including a free mini-ecourseto help you understand how anxiety impacts your life and how to hack its most common challenges,or subscribe to my biweekly newsletter.