When Dealing With Brain Fog Caused By Anxiety, How Sleep Can Help Improve Your Mental State

brain fog

Brain fog is that feeling of your thinking and processing slowing down. You feel a bit disconnected and not completely “there,” like you’re “not sharp” and a little “off.” Some people describe it feeling like “mental quicksand” that for some reason they’re simply not able to correct.

Yet anxiety causes physiological arousal. When anxiety kicks in, we feel motivated to take action – now. We feel energized and alert.

Sohow do these two different experiences become entangled?

Brain fog caused by anxietymay occur because the symptoms of one cause the symptoms of the other, and visa versa. The results can be an escalating, reinforcing feedback loop.

When anxiety is already present, the worry, racing thoughts and ruminating literally exhaust the mind. And this sort of exhaustion can allow the experience of brain fog to take over and decrease alertness and overall processing.

One of the prime culprits in setting the stage for anxiety brain fog appears to be inadequate sleep.

(Sleep deprivation doesn’t just affect those of us with anxiety. A full 40 percent of Americans are chronically sleep deprived.)

Scientists have recently discovered a tiny network of fluid-filled channels that clear toxins from brain cells. The toxins are created while we’re awake and cleared out while we sleep because that’s the only time this tiny network activates. Like with other bodily functions, we need to sleep to allow our brain to rejuvenate and restore itself.

This lead Emily Underwood, a Sciencemagazine writer, to dub sleep the brain’s housekeeper.

Unless we sleep, our brains cannot get cleaned. Further, if we don’t sleep long enough, our brains won’t get the deep cleaning they need to perform at their best. Without the deep cleaning, we’re at risk for brain fog.

Sleep loss also saps energy, efficiency, concentration, and emotional control. For those of us who already wrestle with anxiety, inadequate sleep can make things worse, particularly escalating anticipatory anxiety.

A brain without sleep struggles to think clearly and manage emotional reactions. That’s because the part of the brain associated with this function, the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), is impaired with inadequate sleep.

A brain with inadequate rest is also less able to notice the positive. Since noticing the positive is a critical tool in using anxiety to work for you instead of feeling at its mercy, a lack of sleep can exacerbate anxiety which can in turn induce brain fog.

Sleep is critical to staving off brain fog associated with anxiety, but the fact remains that many of us with anxiety struggle with insomnia. Getting adequate sleep isn’t always easy, or seemingly possible when you struggle with anxiety.

How can you set yourself up for sleeping success? Here are a few avenues to target.

  1. Get to bed a bit earlier.This is the best way to increase sleep. Yet it’s OK to start small. Aim for just 10-15 minutes more sleep every night.
  2. Resist the urge to push through fatigue and do that “one more thing.”Ignoring drowsy cues is one of the ways people condition themselves to stay awake. By doing so, they create a dangerous cycle of not feeling fatigue.If you struggle to get to sleep, be on the lookout for the first drowsy cue you feel and seize it. Get into bed. Turn out the lights. Allow yourself to drift with the drowsiness toward sleep.
  3. Be particularly mindful of screens.The blue light behind most screens (other than a kindle) is the same frequency as the blue light of dawn. This frequency has been shown to stop the production of melatonin(the neurotransmitter associated with sleep) to prepare for waking which is the last thing anyone trying to get some shut-eye needs.
  4. Practice good sleep hygiene.Sleep hygieneincludes the behavioral and environmental practices to promote better quality sleep. A good night’s sleep begins with decreasing the stimulation you’re exposed to a full hour before you want to sleep.Be mindful of stimulation levels of all sorts, visual, auditory, tactile. Get into comfortable clothes. Turn the lights down or off and light some candles. Turn off music, the TV, your computer and phone.

By prioritizing adequate sleep, you’ll find that your anxiety is easier to manage and use for your benefit. You will also mostly likely find that brain fog caused or exacerbated by anxiety falls by the wayside. Your mental processing, mood and alertness will likely elevate as well.

Imagine, simply by allowing yourself to get more adequate rest, you could feel like a different person because your brain fog has lifted.


Looking for more help with anxiety? Check out my book, Hack Your Anxiety, sign-up for my free mini-ecourse to help you hack anxiety’s most common challenges, or subscribe to my newsletter.

Alicia H. Clark, PsyD