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!

Love,

Fibronacci

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19 thoughts on “Overcoming Brain Fog

    1. I have struggled with this one but no I don’t. This is the one aspect of my life in which I aim to complete hide my symptoms. Being absent to teach classes in college is not really an option. I would have to find a sub from amongst my graduate student colleagues, who are all exceptionally busy with their own work and teaching. I compensate by taking it extra easy on teaching days and pushing through even on a bad day. How do you find your students react to the knowledge of your illness?

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      1. Some students don’t quite get it. Sometimes I get the occasional “oh yeah, my ______ has that.” But overall I find it helpful because I have the luxury of taking a day when I need to and students get the general idea of what I go through.

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        1. Yeah it is definitely nice to be able to take a day off when needed. Since we don’t teach everyday (1-2 days/wk. for 1-3 hours each), it becomes less necessary to have that luxury… if I had to teach everyday though, that flexibility would have had to be a necessity! I am glad sharing your story helps you and your students get a better understanding of each other.

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  1. I have been known to make clicking noises when I need to read something quickly (like in the middle of general chemistry lab) and/or read it to myself. This has led to my lab partners thinking I’m weird, but it’s worth it to save my sanity. πŸ™‚

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  2. About teaching – one of my older instructors (basically he did the TA thing for general chemistry but it was his permanent job) did more of a Socratic method thing. As a student with brain fog, this made life SOOO much easier because it was interactive, rather than me just falling asleep in discussion. Maybe it would be easier for you as a teacher? But if you do it in lab your students will probably hate you because it makes it too hard to get the lab work done.

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    1. Reading aloud is a great idea! I sometimes do that too!
      I have taught both discussion sessions and lab courses. I try to make them both interactive but lab classes are more structured by nature than seminar/discussion type classes. In labs, the discussion and the actual lab work are separate so it doesn’t make too much of a difference for the students — it just avoids the monotony of the alternative, lecture. But interactive student-led discussion sessions are actually more challenging for me as a facilitator because they are hard to prepare for (compared to a more structured class), and I have to constantly be on my toes to respond and lead in the right direction in the right way. I compromise by letting students choose from a set of topics I prepare for in advance. That way they feel they have a say in their learning, and I have some preparation to fall back on in case my brain decides to take a nap in between! πŸ˜€

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        1. Actually I was doing it the other way around… like I select a set a set of difficult topics, prepare to teach it, and then I let the students choose which of those hard topics they find the hardest and would like to discuss.
          I like what you said too – ask them first what they would like to do and then just prepare for that specifically – but unfortunately, it is just difficult to pull that off logistically with the current class setup. Great idea though, that I might eventually switch to when I have more control over setting up the course. Sounds like less work! πŸ™‚

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  3. A great post! I didn’t know about the sound therapy, would love to know more. Please let me have a few links that you recommend to look into.
    Right now a fuzzy phase has begun for me and from experience I know that I should talk less with people, I am bound to forget something important I know from before (like someone lost their dad last year and I might ask how’s he doing) or I will fail to recognize people I know or be generally mentally absent during conversations. Strangely enough I am still able to understand the physics. The social related cognition goes faster, the science comprehension goes last. The first to go, of course, is the day to day things… like I left the iron on and the stove on and forgot all about them last week.
    The smart phone has become quite essential really for reminders.

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    1. Glad you liked the post! πŸ™‚ Haha, yeah, every day things are the first to go for me too! But please take care so it doesn’t get dangerous for you. Might be worth keeping a sticky note by the bed and/or in the kitchen, with a “dangerous things to NOT do checklist” – like not leaving the stove on, type of thing. That way they will be a regular reminder that you are likely to see frequently.
      Have you looked at the wikipedia article on brainwave entrainment that I linked in the post itself? It gives some general information about how that works. There are a few different types. The “isochronic tones” you do not need headphones for, whereas you do need them for the “binaural beats.” Here are a couple specific ones that I find helpful >> https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeqWDK6pE8o (Delta wave isochronic tones, for sleep), Hemisync (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hemi-Sync) beta wave binaural beats (for concentration/focus/general alertness), I also really like the Hemisync pain management/sleep meditation tone (~45 minutes, and so relaxing!). I bought a couple of the hemisync discs, but you can find similar things all over youtube. It takes some experimentation to find one that you like. Also, don’t listen to it too loud. It works best when it is so soft that you just barely hear it. Let me know what you think of it if you decide to give it a try!!

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  4. Runa, wow!, I love your painting. I like it second to the boats one. It’s romantic and mysterious – and, I believe there is a story behind the door… have you read The Secret Garden?
    I hadn’t heard of the sound therapy before either. Thank you for sharing your tips. πŸ™‚ 🐻 πŸ’š 🌹

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    1. Thank you so much Stephanie!! I was definitely going for mysterious, so I’m really glad you like the painting! ❀ I love the book Secret Garden, used to be one of my favorites as a child. πŸ™‚
      I added some more info about sound therapy in my comment above to Viv. Check it out, and if you decide to give it a try, let me know what you think of it. πŸ™‚

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  5. Great post! I hadn’t heard of sound therapy. I do music therapy. In my own way, listening to something that makes me feel good and then embracing that feeling…all as a part of pain management. It really helps. Also reading aloud definitely helps with forgetfulness and I’m so curious as to why. I’m not an auditory learner, at least I wasn’t. Anyway, thank you again for sharing. It’s so nice to read tips to make life a little easier and also so not feel so alone in these challenges. 🌸

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    1. So glad you found at least pieces of this helpful, and that it made you feel less alone! πŸ™‚ I have used music before to manage depression and anxiety. For whatever reason, I haven’t used it much for pain. I think part of it had to do with my discovery that music is a double-edged sword. It let me escape the pain at the time. But at a later date, listening to the music, made me remember the painful times that I would rather blot out. At the same time though, remembering past “bad” times makes me think of how far I have come. So it’s not all bad! And frankly, anything that helps is worth it!!

      As for reading vs. reading aloud, I think part of it just might be adding the number of brain parts that are engaged in the process (just reading vs. reading + speaking + listening), which may improve retention. I will admit, however, that my knowledge of the cognitive science of education is a bit dated, so take that only as an educated guess on my part. πŸ™‚

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