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Monday Medical Struggling with brain fog? You’re not alone

Susan Cunningham
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Months of an upside-down routine — or in some cases, lack of a routine altogether — have left our brains in the lurch.

For many people, this has resulted in a lack of mental clarity or “foggy” thinking.

“People may start forgetting things, wondering, ‘What was I going to do today — I don’t even know,’” said Tracy Denney, an occupational therapist with UCHealth SportsMed Clinic in Steamboat Springs.



Denney outlines why this is happening — and how to help — below.

The overloaded and the passive brain

The shifts that have resulted from the pandemic have affected people in markedly different ways.



Working parents with kids at home may feel like they’re always “on,” thinking about whether their kids are doing their schoolwork, or even still in the house, while they try to complete the next Zoom call or power through a report. That constant stress, with your brain bouncing from one thing to the next, can make it difficult to focus.

“What we’re seeing is people can’t shut their brains off,” Denney said. “They’re worried about COVID, worried about family, wondering if they’re working enough, are their kids learning. They’ve been going nonstop for so long that they’re not sleeping. It’s exhausting.”

On the other hand, people who live alone and are either retired or working from home may find the loss of regular routines, such as meeting friends for lunch or a walk, has resulted in a lack of motivation and fuzzy thinking. Denney has seen a number of patients whose shift in mental clarity through the pandemic has made them worry they’re in the early stages of dementia.

“The brain turns passive,” Denney said. “If you’re not actively using your brain — not going for walks and getting out, socializing, making food — your brain may just be chilling.”

The need for a new routine

Establishing a new routine can help foster mental clarity and reduce the dreaded brain fog.

Start by getting dressed each day, even if you aren’t going anywhere.

If you’re overwhelmed, try a “brain dump” each morning in which you list out the top things you have to do for the day.

“Just getting that out of your brain helps,” Denney said. “So many people are running around with so many things to do when they’re home.”

If you’re working from home, dim the lights and use essential oils after you finish work to help signal to your brain that work is over.

And if you find you’re underwhelmed by the days’ tasks, keep your brain active by doing crossword puzzles or Sudoku, or carve out time to learn a new hobby, such as painting or baking.

“Learning a new skill is a great tool to get your brain back into that active state,” Denney said.

Make sleep a priority and don’t forget to exercise. Besides releasing feel-good endorphins, it gives inputs to your vestibular system, which controls your balance, and your proprioception system, which resides in your muscles and joints and gives a sense of body position.

“We know that when we leave the gym and go to work, we feel better,” Denney said. “Going for a walk or run, or even using a weighted blanket, puts pressure on our joints and can add clarity to what we’re doing.”

An occupational therapist can help through this process, as they help people increase participation and performance in their daily routines.

Recognize red flags

A loss of motivation for daily activities such as bathing, eating and getting dressed are reason to get help. Occupational therapy may be all that’s needed to help you establish new routines, but in some cases, mental health counseling and medication may be necessary.

Know it will get better

While every patient is different, establishing a new routine can do wonders for your mental clarity.

“Patients always ask, ‘Will it get better?’” Denney said. “While each patient is different, the research is there that with developing a new routine, mental fog is going to improve if you stick to it.”

Susan Cunningham writes for UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.


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