What Is Brain Fog? Here’s What to Know If You’ve Been Feeling Extra Spaced Out Lately

“What day of the week is it?” “I could’ve sworn that I left my keys on this table!” “Sorry, what was I saying?” If any of those phrases sound familiar, you could be suffering from brain fog. But wait, what is brain fog, exactly? We got the full scoop from Dr. James Jackson, neuropsychologist and Director of Behavioral Health at the ICU Recovery Center at Vanderbilt.

What Is Brain Fog?

Brain fog is not a recognized medical condition, but rather refers to what professionals call a “constellation of symptoms” reported by patients that might indicate cognitive impairment. Feel like we’re being a bit vague? Well, that’s because the definition of brain fog is actually (and ironically) kind of unclear. “Brain fog doesn’t have a widely agreed upon definition and isn’t an official term so much as a term often used by patients to describe problems attending and concentrating and thinking clearly and quickly,” Dr. Jackson explains. In addition to difficulty thinking clearly, memory problems, an inability to focus and feeling generally spaced out are also symptoms of brain fog (but more on that below). Despite the degree of ambiguity associated with the definition of brain fog, it is still recognized and validated by the medical community as a symptom worthy of attention and treatment.

What Causes Brain Fog?

“The potential causes of brain fog are many,” says Dr. Jackson. “They could include anxiety, depression, and severe physical fatigue; or, more fundamentally, they could reflect the effects of neuropsychological insults that occur due to things like inflammatory processes or the possible neurotoxic effects of COVID-19.”

Other factors that can contribute to a brief period of feeling mentally fuzzy are the hormonal changes that happen during menstruation, pregnancy and menopause, as well as environmental factors related to diet and sleep. (So, yeah, there are a lot of reasons why brain fog might occur.)

According to Dr. Jackson, the term brain fog has been around for quite a while and has long been a common complaint among patients being treated for cancer, among other things. Still, he acknowledges that it’s a hotter topic lately—namely because of the aforementioned possibility of post-infection neurological symptoms associated with COVID-19. Indeed, a particular pandemic-era demographic, referred to as COVID-19 ‘long haulers,’ has brought the issue of brain fog to the forefront with reports of decreased cognitive function that linger long after physical recovery from the disease. Note: It’s worth mentioning that such cognitive symptoms have been tied to other transient infections as well as chronic auto-immune disorders.

The takeaway? There are myriad explanations for brain fog, so it’s particularly important that you see a health practitioner to help you identify the underlying cause—especially if you experience symptoms of it for an extended period of time, or to such a degree that it starts to significantly interfere with your life.

What Are the Symptoms of Brain Fog?

It’s not hard to describe the experience of feeling foggy—anyone who has ever had a hangover or experienced a night of inadequate sleep knows what it’s like to not be firing on all cylinders for a single day. However, in patients who are regularly plagued by brain fog, the symptoms can have a significant negative impact on their day-to-day functioning. In more severe cases, Dr. Jackson says that “functional abilities are compromised and limited, resulting in major issues at school or at work, problems driving, managing money, managing medication and so on.” Think: forgetting to turn off the stove, making calculation errors at work or forgetting to pick up your kid from daycare.

Much like the definition of brain fog, the symptoms are quite broad. That said, the three symptoms below make the top of the list.

  • forgetfulness
  • difficulty concentrating
  • decrease in language processing speed—specifically word finding and substitution—resulting in relative difficulty putting thoughts into words

How Is Brain Fog Diagnosed?

Since brain fog is not recognized as a medical condition on its own, there are no formal diagnostic criteria for it. Again, brain fog is a term that refers to a broad group of cognitive symptoms and is thus evaluated as such with a variety of neurological assessments. Dr. Jackson emphasizes that these neuropsychological tests are reserved for patients who experience persistent brain fog symptoms that don’t go away on their own. Whenever that’s the case, the diagnostic process begins with a “one-on-one evaluation with an expert in the measurement of brain functioning and includes a series of focused questionnaires and tasks that assess abilities in attention, executive functioning, language, memory and processing speed, among other areas.” After these tests, a medical professional can recommend a treatment plan accordingly.

4 Ways to Cope with Brain Fog (or at Least Lessen Its Impact)

Brain fog is frustrating, yes, but it’s also not impossible to cope with. That’s why Audley Villages, a group of retirement villages in the U.K., partnered with experts to provide some tips on how to cope with and reduce the effects of brain fog.

1. Take Regular Breaks

Neuro-linguistic programming coach Rebecca Lockwood stresses the importance of taking breaks and not attempting to push yourself too far. “If you are feeling like you need a time out, then take one,” she notes. “Have no expectations of yourself and what you should be doing and allow yourself to honor the feelings you have.” Now, this isn’t permission to shirk all responsibilities, but a short break here and there can work wonders in terms of refocusing your brain.

2. Take Time Away from Screens

Computers and iPhones and TVs, oh my. We live in an ultra-connected world, which means we spend a lot (like…a lot) of time looking at our devices. Lockood notes, “Staring at screens a lot can cause you to go into foveal vision, which is when you’re only focused on the thing right in front of you.” Why is that a bad thing? “This can heighten stress levels and cause you to feel less motivated to do much else.” The opposite of foveal vision, she tells us, is peripheral vision, which is a healthier place to be when it comes to productivity. “When we are in peripheral vision, we are able to focus on all of the things around us at the same time, this leaves us feeling calmer and more grounded within ourselves.” With screen time on the rise and the internet becoming more accessible than ever, Lockwood recommends moving your phone out of your sight and eliminating any other distractions that may lure you back into foveal vision.

3. Drink Enough Water and Get Enough Sleep

This one seems like a given for overall health, but you’d be surprised how easy it is to let tasks as basic as sleeping and hydration fall by the wayside. That’s a bad thing for brain fog, says nutritionist Ellie Busby, adding that adjusting certain lifestyle factors can have a huge impact. (While the amount of sleep and water each person requires varies quite a bit, Busby recommends seven to eight hours of sleep every night and at least 1.5 liters of water every day.

4. Relax

On top of staying hydrated and rested, Busby stresses (pun intended) the importance of relaxation. She points out that activities like walking, reading or doing yoga can be effective—and enjoyable—ways to reduce the effects of brain fog. If you’re not sure where to start, here are 50 free ways to practice self-care.