Along with the pain and fatigue and the million other horrid symptoms, the increasing levels of brain fog in my life have become incredibly problematic. I’m currently far too foggy to think of clever analogies for brain fog that aren’t just “brain fog”, so I highly recommend reading Rosie’s excellent (and hilarious) post on that topic.
I have received a few emails over the last few weeks with people asking me for some advice regarding how to manage brain fog, as it can be incredibly debilitating. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. If you follow me on social media (you should), then you’ll see that I’m currently in the middle of a really bad flare up and have been particularly unwell. You will also have seen that I’m doing way more work than I should be doing, because there’s too much stuff that I want to achieve. The other day my mum called me and the words I said were more noises than words – I couldn’t string a sentence together. So I get it, I really do.
That being said, if there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s pushing and learning to get stuff done no matter how I feel. Let’s leave aside the discussion as to whether my pushing is heathy or not (it’s not, but shh), and finding ways to keep doing things in spite of the ever increasing fog in my brain is something I know quite a bit about. The tips below are what works for me. Of course, we’re all different. It’s also important to note that there are times that no matter what, you just need to stop because it’s so bad. That’s ok. Listen to your body.*
*advice I give everyone and don’t take myself.
Anyway, onto the tips! These are just some of the ways that I cope, and won’t be focussed on brain fog brought on by medication side-effects, and are specifically focussed on brain fog in relation to trying to work and complete tangible tasks. I’m going to take it as a given that eating well, trying to exercise in a safe way (if you can) and getting as much sleep as possible are things that we all know are important when managing our health problems.
1) Figure out when your fog is at its lowest…ebb(?)
I’m a control freak, and a big part of that is because I’ve got to be in control of my schedule and how I work. It means that I’m able to be flexible, but at the same time it means that I am able to work based on when I know my body is usually most responsive.
This is different for all of us, but I find that about an hour or so after I’ve woken up and finally managed to actually function is when I have the most energy. I get small freelance social media jobs done before breakfast. Then I rest. Then I can do some more. There are various times throughout the day when I have more energy and a less foggy brain than others. I make sure to work during those times. Knowing and understanding this is really instinctual for me (my old therapist said I was the most self-aware person she’d ever met), but if you struggle to identify these times, keep a symptom or energy diary for a week to track it.
2) Write everything down
I have to write down anything from conversations to meetings otherwise I’ll forget. Even if I need to respond to an email, I’ll probably forget, so I need to write that down too.
I use the calendar app on my computer and my phone (it syncs) to put in any calls, meetings and appointments, and I use Evernote to make general notes. If I’m in a Skype meeting I’ll be typing the whole time to make sure I don’t forget what is being said, and those are popped into Evernote to be organised at a later date.
I’ve recently discovered an app called Todoist, and it has changed my life. You can break everything down into projects and sub-projects, schedule times and dates of when to be reminded, and get a daily to do list of things that you need to do and look forward to the week ahead. This can be really overwhelming (I have hundreds of tasks on mine right now – it was definitely worth taking that time to organise it and I add things daily of things that pop into my head that i want to remember to look into) but if I have something scheduled for a certain day that I know can be pushed, I push it. No guilt. So, not only do I have daily task reminders, I have reminders of people I need to follow up with by email, reminders to look into projects or funding that I’ve heard about and reminders to write specific proposals or documents. I even schedule seemingly small things like scheduling social media posts or writing 200 words of an essay. It has really helped me visualise everything that I should be doing and figure out how to best plan my time around my brain fog.
3) Get the easy stuff out of the way
Struggling to get something (anything) done can be really mentally distressing. I find that prioritising (see, planning is important) the easy stuff that can be done quickly and without much thought really helps. That way, I build up some confidence and realise that I can do *something*, and I’m ticking stuff off my list nice and quickly, giving me more time to focus on bigger and more difficult tasks.
3) Break it down
Long gone are the days where I can leave an essay to the evening before it was due, sit down and just bash it out in one go. Now my ability to focus can be anywhere from 1 minute to 20 (and I think 20 is the whole thing for healthy people anyway, so that’s all good, y’all).
Now, I work in bursts. As soon as that burst of clarity or energy, I use it getting the tasks done that I need to. That being said, you can’t rely on those bursts and only work when they come. It may sound insensitive, but sometimes if you’ve got stuff you need to do you kind of just have to suck it up and do it. But if you can implement a lot of the tips here, that should become easier.
Breaking your bigger tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks is really helpful and important. These can then be ticked off as easier to manage things, all the while making progress towards a larger goal.
For example, with this essay that I’m writing, I’ll do some online research to find resources, and do a super quick scan of things that would be helpful and copy them into a document for reading later. Task done. There’s no way I could make sense of them and use them in the essay at that point because my brain would be friend. But they’re there ready for the next time I open it up again.
As a side note, this is incredibly difficult for me. Even though I had a body that didn’t work when I was younger, the one thing I could always rely on was a brain that just retained information and never really needing to do any work. Silly brain.
4) Explore true rest
Ok, this isn’t something I’m great at, but when I’m working really hard, taking time to truly rest is even more important than usual. For me, this means very little stimulation as it becomes physically painful – so not even tv or a podcast. Sometimes a podcast. Sometimes just attempting to nap. It just gives my brain some time to switch off and recover from the stress and pressure of trying to do things and makes me more likely to be able to do more in the long run.
5) Avoid distractions
This is easier said than done, but I know that if I’m particularly struggling with brain fog and trying to work, my body goes into massive hypersensitivity mode. Being around any other noise or distraction can become far too much for my brain and makes it impossible to focus on what I’m doing.
If you can, find an environment to work in that you’re able to control. As I said, not always easy. My building is super quiet, so working from home is great for me, but when there was building work happening and it made working and resting nearly impossible, to the point that it gave me panic attacks.
Take a step back from what you’ve written and return to it after you’ve had time to rest. This is generally a good tip for anyone, but looking again at that email or essay or whatever you’re working on with a bit more energy can really help you refocus.
7) Get outside and clear your mind
I find that fresh air does wonders for my brain fog, and getting away from my environment (working from home has its downsides) really helps. When things are bad I go for a walk (if I can) or mum takes me in my wheelchair or we go for a drive.
Honestly, I found Pokemon Go was awesome for my ability to cope. It had me focussed on something entirely outside myself (and being driven around to catch them saved my energy). It was super enjoyable and left me in a better mood.
8) Accept that sometimes your brain is just going to feel like shit
Rubbish, but true. And all you can do is rest, take it easy, pamper yourself and give yourself a bit of a break so you can come back stronger tomorrow. Hopefully.
What are your top tips for managing brain fog? Leave them in the comments below!
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