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Are You Experiencing Brain Fog?

This month, with the permission of Jennifer Moss, I have used a lot of the article she posted on CBC News on February 21st because I believe you will find it very helpful.

Are you struggling to tackle simple projects or feel like it’s hard to organize your thoughts?

Do you open your laptop and wonder, “where do I start”?

If yes, then you could be one of the millions experiencing “brain fog” – a byproduct of chronic stress that has dramatically increased over the past year.

Other symptoms of brain fog include:

  • You feel like you’re searching for your words.
  • You have difficulty making up your mind, and making small decisions becomes a big deal.
  • You lose your focus quickly – you go to the fridge for milk but, when you get there, wonder why you’re standing in front of an open fridge.

Contributors to Brain Fog

The reason we’re struggling like this, according to Dr. Lily Brown, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, possibly because our ‘fight or flight’ is in overdrive. When our ancient brain is consistently triggered by stressful information or events, it overrides the executive functioning part of our brain, which is where rational and clear decision-making occurs. The more that override happens, the more we struggle to focus, motivate, think clearly, or control impulses.

We also see brain fog show up when we’re engaging in less physical activity than usual during the day and/or experiencing poor sleep. Both of these deficits also happen to be a result of stress.

According to physician Dr. David Greuner, who has led several sleep studies, “In a nutshell, sleep consolidates memory; a lot of the information you take in while you’re awake is processed while you’re sleeping, so not only is your memory affected, but your ability to solve problems is also hindered, in addition to your alertness, attention, concentration and judgment. Your brain isn’t as efficient as it should be.”

The Vicious Cycle of Stress and Brain Fog

Poor sleep may be a result of stress but right now it’s also being exacerbated by the massive shift to working from home and video conferencing. Where people used to get up and walk around the office to chat with co-workers or go for a walking meeting, many are now sitting at desks all day, on video conferencing calls, becoming extremely sedentary.

And a decrease in physical activity increases poor sleep because we aren’t tiring ourselves out physically during the day – so brain fog becomes a vicious cycle.

Recent evidence shows that chronic stress and the resulting brain fog can lead people to experience depression, weight gain, an increase in alcohol consumption, and feelings of isolation.

How to Manage Brain Fog at Work

The workplace is where we’re seeing the impacts of brain fog most clearly: on average, in the past year people have added 48 minutes to their workday.

Trying to keep up with productivity demands at work, when it’s hard to stay on top of those demands because work takes way more effort than normal, increases the risk of burnout. That’s why we need to manage the causes of brain fog.

First, we need to reduce the amount of time we’re spending on video conferencing calls. In the past year, meetings have increased by 24%, on average. So, communicate with your peers, manager or team and start asking:

  • Is this meeting really, really necessary?
  • Does it have to be a video call?
  • Does it have to be longer than 30 minutes?
  • Does it have a clear purpose and a short agenda?
  • Is someone taking minutes, so that we know what we have agreed and who is doing it?
  • Who absolutely needs to attend?
  • Can we turn off our cameras or get on a phone call?
  • Can we start meetings with a check-in: How are people feeling? Are they back-to-back all day?

We need to get better at questioning practices that were used for solving immediate problems in an acute situation; we’re now a year into the pandemic. This – working from home and video conferencing – is how we’re working now and will be for some time, so it’s important to figure out ways to make it more sustainable.

If we’re pretty certain the cause of our brain fog is a year of unrelenting stress, here are a few ways to tackle it:

  1. Tell yourself that you prefer to exercise because it is really going to help reduce your brain fog.
  2. Start with just 10 minutes of moving in a way that gets your heart rate up and has you breathing deeply. It could be a brisk walk, climbing some stairs, jogging on the spot, or following an online exercise session. Don’t say “I must or I should exercise.” Say “I prefer to exercise . . . and give yourself a big cheer when you do it.
  3. Recognize that it takes an extra effort to concentrate and allow yourself time to develop a method that works for you. See Maximize Your Focus in Turbulent Times.
  4. Develop a stress management plan:
    • Have a “Brain Fog” discussion with your team and your manager. Everyone will be very grateful you have raised the issue. Together analyze your schedule: Is there anything that can be de-prioritized? Be ruthless. It’s easy to say that everything is a priority but that’s never the case.
    • Learn how timing can make a huge difference. Most of us only have 2-4 hours of really productive energy in a day. Plan to do your top three priorities at the best time of day for you. See The Secrets of Perfect Timing. You can do the less important tasks during the rest of your day.
    • Allow yourself fun, relaxing short breaks every hour. Research shows you will be more productive and much happier.
    • Well-planned strategies are essential to deep, restorative sleep you can count on, night after night. See Sleep Smarts: How to Sleep Well Every Night.

Jennifer Moss is an international public speaker, award-winning author, and UN Global Happiness Committee Member based in Ottawa.

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