What is brain fog?
A prime example of brain fog is writing up an entire blog post and realizing that you’ve actually written “Brian frog“ over ten times (thank goodness for proofreading)!
But really, brain fog (also known as “brain fatigue”) is an symptom that many chronic illness warriors deal with on a daily basis. If you’re a healthy person then you may have experienced this state of “brain peanut-butter” in your 7AM biology class if you didn’t have time to grab your morning coffee.
Anyone who has suffered through severe seasonal allergies may also recognize the symptoms of brain fog: difficulty thinking clearly, poor word recall, trouble remembering lists and numbers, loss of concentration, mental exhaustion, low motivation, and general confusion. Brain fog is a common problem for people who live with disorders like: multiple sclerosis, lupus, allergies, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, epilepsy, dysautonomia, and many others.
If you still can’t fathom what brain fog feels like, then just imagine this scenario for a moment: you’re sleeping soundly in your room when you are suddenly woken up by an intruder busting down the door. This masked stranger sticks their gun in your face and screams “Quick! Tell me your social security number!” Under normal circumstances, you would be able to recite your social security number with no issue at all, but due to this unexpected turn of events, your brain locks up and you just can’t think.
No matter how hard you mentally scrabble to recall that 9-digit string of numbers, you simply can’t remember them! This is similar to what brain fog feels like (minus the imminent danger, of course).
So, what is it like living with brain fog every day?
I’m glad you asked! Here we go…
4 Ways Brain Fog Messes With Your Life
1. It destroys your productivity
When brain fog hits, efficiency is a thing of the past! Reading, comprehending, remembering everyday tasks, and processing auditory information suddenly becomes 100 items more difficult than it normally is. It’s like you’re suddenly teleported to the world of Charlie Brown and all you hear from your boss and co-workers is “Wah wah wah wah,” even though your trying your hardest to listen carefully! It’s frustrating for everybody involved.
Em’s Real Life Example: So, I have a part time job as a health writer and just the other day I was experiencing a bout of severe brain fog for some reason. I tried to research, write, and edit one of my articles, and it took a total of 5 hours spread across three days. The next day, my brain fog was about 75% better for a couple of hours, due to a medication I was taking. I proceeded to research, write, and edit an article of the same length and complexity as the previous one…and it took me a whopping 45 minutes, it was completed in one sitting, and it was more well written than the one that took 5 hours. This is a testament to the powers of brain fog. It is not to be underestimated!
2. It contributes to anxiety
Have you ever been driving in your car, half way to work and been suddenly struck with horror as you thought to yourself, “Crap! Did I leave the oven on?!”
People with brain fog suffer from frantic “did I leave the oven on?!” moments all day long, because their short term memory is so bad that their mind starts to prioritize things on its own without their consent. This often results in someone remembering vital things, like how to drive their car, but magically forgetting less vital things…like where they were going in the car.
In cases of extreme brain fog, they might not even have that “did I leave the oven on” moment on they way to work…because they didn’t even remember that they owned an oven in the first place!
But all jokes aside, it is really difficult not to live in a state of constant worry when you’re brain is swirling in a thick fog. You reach a point where you decide you can’t even trust yourself to remember things, and that breeds a deep state of uneasiness and anxiety.
Em’s Real Life Examples: In college, I showed up to the wrong classroom several times. Or even worse, I showed up to the right classroom…an hour too late. I had my class schedule written down in four different places but my brain still managed to skip town for an afternoon and I just blanked.
On the more terrifying end the spectrum, I also had a few brain fog incidents while driving that made me question my sanity. One time I was driving in Spokane and I realized that I had no idea where I was going. To clarify, it wasn’t that I got lost and couldn’t make it to my destination. The problem was that I literally didn’t even know where my destination was, or how to get home. I knew I had to be somewhere, but I didn’t know where! I pulled into the nearest parking lot and cried until I could figure out what was going on. I genuinely thought I was getting dementia at age 21.
Then of course there are things like almost burning down your house by forgetting that you’ve got food burning in the oven, running out of gas on the highway because you forgot you had an empty tank, and completely forgetting about you and your boyfriend’s anniversary. Oops.
3. It trips up your social game
It’s normal for most people to fumble a little bit when trying to think of a really complex term or remember a series of details, but it’s not normal to sound like you’re having a stroke every time you try to remember the name of the store you went to today.
Em’s real life example:
Person: “Where did you get your groceries today?”
Me: “Yeah I went to, hh…it’s, um. The one, you know, with the big, wide isles and the really good hot dogs! It’s ‘co…something.’ Pet Co? I mean Costco!”
Sometimes brain fog feels like somebody yanked out all the chords in in your brain and put them back in the wrong order. I imagine that it’s a mixture of having dyslexia, ADD, and being drunk, all at the same time.
Sometimes having a major brain fog moment feels like having dementia. You can’t remember the name of your favorite celebrity and you just called your sister by your brother’s name, or worse yet, you called your sister by the family dog’s name (this has happened in the past).
Unfortunately, the social aspect of brain fog is probably the worst one. As if a chronically sick person doesn’t already have enough social mud to crawl through, they also have brain fog making them trip over their words, stutter, sputter, and say things backwards. People look at them like they’re an idiot, but they just let it go because they don’t want to have to explain another one of their health issues.
Brain fog can cause severe social anxiety and make you shy away from social situations like and get-togethers where you know you’ll get chatted up by acquaintances all night. It makes giving a presentation in class five times as nerve wracking and it makes a trip to the grocery store more of a high-stakes memory quiz than a mindless errand.
Here’s a message to those who suffer from brain fog: You are not stupid, you’re not a ditz, and you’re not a nuisance. Your brain might be acting like a spastic second grader, but it isn’t your fault. And if anybody says it’s your fault or tells you to “try harder,” then you can start acting like a second grader and fling a spit-ball at their head.
4. It dictates your entire schedule
Not only do us Spoonies have to navigate around physical problems like pain, dizziness, and fatigue all day, but a lot of us also have to factor this brain fog into the equation. This makes it very difficult to get work done, run daily errands, and plan any social activities. Your day suddenly turns into an obstacle course…
Em’s real life example: I am currently suffering from a lot of brain fog that lasts pretty much all day long, most days of the week. But if I stew up a magic brain fog elixir in my cauldron (this elixir consists of allergy medication, peppermint essential oil, and an ice-pack on my neck) then I can usually scrounge up about 3 hours of “good brain time” per day. These are the hours that I delicate for the top items on my daily to-do list, like calling doctor’s offices, doing paperwork, working on articles for my job, and writing blog posts like the one you’re reading right now. But after a few hours and the medicine has worn off, my coach turns back into a pumpkin and I’m basically a vegetable for the rest of the day.
You can see how adding brain fog to the chronic illness dance can make every aspect of your life just a little bit harder.
Why does this matter?
So, why am I even talking about this? Well, I’m blabbering about brain fog because it is one of the most unrecognized and misunderstood parts of chronic illness, and it can even be more debilitating chronic pain is. Brain fog and other cognitive issues are just one of the many problems that fly under the radar and aren’t seen by others. It is just one of the many cogs in the “invisible illness” machine.
Here’s a few ways that you can help someone who suffers from brain fog:
1. Understand that it comes and goes, and they have no control over it. Realize that they aren’t meaning to space out in the middle of your important conversation and give them the benefit of the down that it’s not personal.
2. Ask them if they’re having a bad “brain day,” if they seem spacey or out of it. We can usually identify our own brain fog and let you know what we need from you in terms of accommodation, but we may be reluctant to bring it up first. We are afraid to feel needy and annoying so we try not to make a big fuss about things, but we may actually need some help remembering that meeting or driving to that appointment.
3. Try not to get overly frustrated at us. Trust me, we are way more frustrated at our own lack of brain function that you are. We’re mentally trying to pull a 10-horse-cart with about one-and-a-half limping mules…so take it easy on us.
And if you yourself are a brain fog sufferer, I’ve got a post just for you! I’ll be writing about several “brain fog hacks” in the near future, so stay tuned!
Wishing you clear skies and clearer brains!
Until next time,
Em the Silver Spoonie