Understanding anxiety Brain Fog
Brain fog is a symptom everyone experiences sometimes. The normal day to day stresses of life, a bad night’s sleep or a big night on the booze can leave us all feeling a bit less sharp than normal and a bit foggy in the head.
But for those living with an anxiety illness, that fogginess is ever-present, and describing the feeling as ‘a bit foggy’ is like calling torrential rain a gentle shower!
When I was unwell I felt like I was permanently dazed and confused. Simple things like reading a newspaper article or a work email were difficult because I couldn’t maintain the necessary focus. Activities like making dinner felt overwhelming because the task required presence of mind and I had none. I was forgetful and clumsy and things I had once done as a matter of routine became challenging.
If you’re dealing with this feeling on a daily basis, or even just more regularly than feels normal, you’ll know how utterly debilitating it can be. It slowly strips away your confidence because you just don’t ever feel like you can trust yourself.
So what’s going on in the brain that makes us feel so foggy?
We need a basic high level understanding of three important parts of the brain - and you don’t need to be a doctor or psychiatrist to gain this understanding
The three parts of the brain are:
1. The amygdala – the brains fear centre which controls our natural stress response (also called the fight-or-flight response)
2. The hippocampus – the part of the brain involved with memory and learning which also plays an important role in helping us recover from stressful situations.
3. The prefrontal cortex – this part of the brain controls those things that make us ‘human’. It controls our ability to concentrate, our ability to make rational and thoughtful decisions, our ability to make judgements about different situations we encounter day to day and our ability to interact with others.
The more anxious we are, the bigger and more active our amygdala becomes. It literally starts to hijack the brain meaning that our brains fear centre is in control.
The amygdala starts to bypass the pre-frontal cortex – meaning we start to lose our ability to concentrate, our ability to make rational and thoughtful decisions, our ability to make judgements about different situations we encounter day to day and our ability to interact with others.
These things are all smothered by the all-consuming fog as the hyperactive amygdala continues to take over the brain.
And if that’s not bad enough, the stress hormone initiated by the amygdala (cortisol) causes the hippocampus to perform poorly.
This means that memory and learning also become a problem which just intensifies the feeling of fogginess.
And what do anxiety sufferers do when they wake up day after day feeling like their brain isn’t working properly? Well, we worry about it, of course. How could you not worry about it?
- I can’t do my job properly. I might get fired. - I seem like an idiot. Everyone thinks I’ve lost the plot. - I might be losing my mind.
On and on the cycle goes, adding more anxiety fuel to our already foggy mind.
To recover from anxiety illness - and live a life without brain fog and the myriad of other debilitating symptoms - we need to begin by removing the fear from these symptoms. Only then can we begin to break the cycle that keeps us stuck.
Removing the fear isn't easy, but it begins with accepting that you have an illness with a unique set of symptoms - and slowly bringing a level of acceptance to those symptoms. This acceptance and removal of fear, interrupts the feedback loop between the stress hormones and the amygdala - meaning the brains fear center slowly starts to return to normal....and then you get your life back.
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