Foggy brain

Yesterday morning, I spent a solid five minutes staring at the word “spaghetti.” I was writing an article for work, and my brain suddenly could not verify that (yes, indeed!) there is an “h” after the “g” in the pasta shape that goes into everyone’s favorite Italian dish. The brain fog had already rolled at 10 in the gosh darn morning—and neurologist Priyank Khandelwal, MBBS, assistant professor in neurology at the Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says there’s a legit, life-affirming reason so many of our minds feel like pea soup these days.

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“In medical terms, you can boil down ‘brain fog’ into a few things,” says Dr. Khandelwal. “When somebody’s feeling more anxious, and more distracted as a result, then they may feel like they have more of a lack of energy than they do on normal days. That’s what some people describe as brain fog.”

On a chemical level, brain fog happens when the stress hormone, cortisol, impairs the prefrontal cortex—the region of the brain that controls most of our cognitive functions like decision-making and concentration. (Basically, your body’s flight-or-flight response doesn’t want you to analyze a stressful situation when you’re in danger—it just wants you to run.) Both acute and long-lasting instances of stress keep the prefrontal cortex from doing its job properly—and your brain might feel unclear as a result.

Long story, short: Anxiety takes a lot of mental juice, and in the time of COVID-19, our brains are running on fumes. Constant worry about the virus has become an uninvited guest into our quarantine—and it’s really only being amplified by the fact that we can’t connect with others outside of video chat, we’re grappling with the fear being laid off or making ends meet after being laid off, and our routines at large have been upended. It’s no wonder that people are feeling anxious and thus potentially foggy and sluggish as a result.

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