Overcoming Brain Fog

Going through life with a fuzzy brain can be challenging enough, even when one is not in graduate school! But being in a field where cognition is highly prized, I had to learn fairly quickly how to compensate for the brain-jelly effects of fibromyalgia and its medication.

Featured image: Reclamation (11X14, oil on canvas)

Below are the 5 most helpful brain fog coping skills I have learned.

1) Use your smartphone for lists and reminders : If you find you forget your memory aids (like leaving your grocery list at home), this one is for you! Most of us carry our smartphones with us everywhere, and it is easy enough to make lists, and add events to the calendar on those. They also have handy alarm and reminder features, which is a plus!

What if you have trouble remembering to add the commitment to the calendar on your phone? I find it best to add the event as soon as the appointment is made, before you have a chance to forget!

2) Jot down/verbally repeat key points in a conversation : Any discussion, specially scientific ones, require some level of on-your-feet processing of information for the exchange to be meaningful. When conversations start turning into word soup, I often find it helpful to repeat important points/questions, and/or write them down to help process it in a different way (auditory vs. verbal/written). Having quick notes also means you can think about it later and contribute your insight at a better time.

3) Avoid multi-tasking (if possible) : Multi-tasking requires being able to switch gears from one thing into another fairly seamlessly, which takes more mental capacity than just focusing on one thing at a time. More things happening at the same time means more chances for confusion and making mistakes. But if you must do it, below are two quick tips:

  • Multi-tasking tip #1: Take a short (mental) break between two tasks. This often keeps me from mixing up the details of one activity with those of the other.
  • Multi-tasking tip #2: Keep a plan of what needs to be done for each task. For example, if I am running 2-3 experiments that each take several days to complete, I will write down what needs to be done for each experiment on each day.

4) Use isochronic tones/binaural beats to help focus : I cannot say that I am 100% sure that brainwave entrainment actually works, but it is free and certainly something that is worth a shot! There have been times when beta tones have helped me not get distracted, and delta tones have helped me stay asleep . . . and there have been times when they have done nothing at all! They usually work when I use them for short periods of time, followed by periods of disuse. I suspect if I use it every day for too long, I start ignoring it, and that is why they stop working for me from time to time.

5) TEACHING TIP – Turn brainfarts into teachable moments : In my experience, students typically respond well to your mistakes if you can praise them for being able to spot it, with an appropriate apology, and turn it into a teachable moment. And if you are asked a question you do not know the answer to, it is OK to admit to not knowing it and offer to look it up for them. Alternatively, teach your students to be independent knowledge-builders by showing them how to research (aka, google) their question themselves and find reliable answers.

A lot of the tips above may seem really obvious. But I had to go through some trial and error to figure out what now seems most elementary. So if you are in a spot where you feel forgetful, unfocussed, frazzled or foggy, I hope these tips give you some ideas for how to successfully wade through the murky waters, and be able to achieve more from your day!



The Power Within

Chronic illness has a way of making one feel very powerless, like they have lost say over much of their own body. But a couple of incidents over the last few weeks showed me just how much power I still retained. And just how resilient the human body really is!

I had the epiphany a couple of weeks ago when I managed to desperately (and successfully) “hold back” a major crash, or at least keep hidden any outward signs of it, while in public. It was sudden, my energy was depleted, and I was feeling dizzy and nauseated as an intense gnawing ache gripped my body. Yet I was not in a position where I could easily make an escape and collapse in bed, or even find a place to be miserable in private.

So I tried my best to look as normal as possible on the outside. I think I was successful because I did not pass out regardless of how close I came. I am not sure how much sense I made during the conversation with my boss. I suspect I said things to just put off the talk for later. Processing anything seemed impossible at the time, as it felt like it took all my remaining capacity for effort to just hold myself upright and stay conscious.

Incidentally, this wasn’t the first time I was engaging in such a battle of will against my body. That was my modus operandi for the first year with FM before I learned how disastrous that is for me.

Given my past experiences, however, I knew I could not keep up the shield for long. Running on auxiliary power feels incredibly draining. Without exception, I always feel worse later when I can finally stop the show. On the contrary, when I am free to “give in” to the crash, I find I swing back from it faster.

I liken it to a dam that is holding back a flood. It works up to a point. But as the force of the water grows, the dam eventually breaks. And then it causes more damage than if you had just opened the dam(ned) gates in the first place. But sometimes it is necessary to risk that damage in order to evacuate folks and save their lives.

38_Sun Meditation-II
Sun Meditation (7X14, oil on canvas)

Sometimes I wonder how erecting such an internal dam is possible at all. My best guess is by the sheer force of will.

I find it amazing that such will is capable of us puny human beings! And the conscious awareness of that kind of strength of will is certainly a gift in itself. It is a reminder of the power that we hold within us, regardless of how much control we may feel we have lost to our illnesses.

But with great power comes great responsibility. Stronger the power, the more sparingly it is best exercised, so as to avoid its abuse. It will be a rewarding journey as I learn more on how to best channel and direct my will power towards achieving better balance and harmony in my life.



My Quest for Peace

Cognitive challenges are one of the unhappy symptoms of fibromyalgia. I am lucky in that my brain has not completely turned into mush yet because of it. But between FM and the medication for FM, I have to admit that it might be softening at the edges a bit. Yet it has brought me closer in my quest for mental peace, in a way that I had never experienced before.

Featured image: Journey into the Light (8X10, oil on canvas)

Once upon a time, I could ace over 15 credit hours of courses a semester, along with teaching/tutoring and the myriad responsibilities that came with that, lab work as an undergraduate research assistant working towards an honors thesis, and still be able to keep up with all the bills, budgeting and financial responsibilities of our home, and perhaps more that I cannot now recall.

What would I have not given, back then, for some mental peace, some quiet space in my brain? To be honest, probably nothing! I just wished it could be tacked on on top of everything else! I took a lot of pride in being able to hold everything together by myself. I enjoyed the feeling of success. I did not know enough of what mental peace felt like to know if any bargain would be worth it.

Over the last few days, it has just struck me how I have been slowly letting go of all that more and more. I cannot place when it exactly started, or what the progression was like, but now, all of a sudden, I find myself barely remembering to pay the few bills that I am still responsible for. If one experiment schedule changes, or one extra thing gets added into my day/week, and the written reminders are not immediately updated, I often forget that those changes happened. I use reminders on my phone for my medicines, but if I miss the reminder, I even forget to take those!

All I can figure is that I used to have a mental PA, who was always up and awake at all times, and managed my day/week/life, and updated the mental calendar with any changes that happened, so I could keep up with it all – and now she is starting to slack. She often falls asleep on the job, or does not (re)calculate fast enough. This results in me forgetting things from time to time, making some embarrassing mistakes, others that cost time and money, and occasionally feeling as useful as a wallflower.

However, the upside of this is that it has brought me more mental peace than I ever had before. Much of the chatter in my brain seems softer now. The wheel in my brain that used to always churn, never allowing me to mentally relax, is now churning a bit slower. As a result, I am able to achieve a level of calmness in my being that I never knew was possible.

Even when musing about my past abilities recently – this was after I had just made a series of goofs because of my forgetfulness – the delayed processing meant that the musing was without any bitterness or resentment. There was only with a sense of nostalgia; like what an old person might feel, something in the lines of “I had a good run while it lasted.” And I am grateful for being able to make the most of it.

I did not choose to trade off my highly prized uber-independence for mental peace necessarily. But now that the decision has been already made for me, perhaps it is not all that bad as I thought it would be!