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Foggy Brain? The Psychological Issues That Contribute

by Andrea M. Darcy

Tried every health recommendation and ‘brain supplement’ on the market to get rid of your foggy head, without result?

It’s time to consider what psychological issues might be the real cause of your brain fog.

Brain fog symptoms

Brain fog is not a clinical diagnosis in and of itself (although it is a symptom of many mental health issues that are indeed diagnosable).

Those who suffer describe the following brain fog symptoms:

  • my head is full of sand/cotton wool/fog
  • I feel spacey and mentally confused
  • I can’t think clearly
  • it’s as if I am about to grab a thought but can’t find its tail
  • focussing on one thing can feel hard
  • doing things that require mental clarity seem difficult
  • my short-term memory feels faulty
  • conversations seem suddenly taxing
  • I’m just not mentally ‘myself’.

Psychological causes for brain fog

It is of course advisable to first check your health is fine. A GP can check for any medical illnesses that can cause brain fog,including thyroid issues and chronic fatigue. They can also ensure it’s not something such as your medication, vitamin deficiencies, or bad eating habits.

But if your health is good, then look into the following psychological reasons for brain fog.

Post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional shock

Just think of the last time you had bad news and how muddle headed you felt afterwards – people with PTSD or emotional shock can feel like that constantly. While emotional shock resolves after several weeks, PTSD can last a very long time if not treated.

Am I stressed or depressed online quiz

Anxiety and stress

Stress means you know what is upsetting and overwhelming you and leaving you unable to think straight.

Anxiety can be less rational. It tends to leave the mind spinning madly with ‘what if’ scenarios and negative thinking, exhausting your head. Brain fog can even increase your sense of anxiety, because brain fog can make you feel even more out of control and in danger.

Unprocessed past trauma

This can include things like a past bereavement or broken home. It also includes childhood abuse, which some feel leads to a sort of long-term PTSD.

Past trauma also causes dissociation, meaning you have a feeling you have left your body when stress hits, adding to your sense you can’t think straight.


Depression can leave sufferers feeling as if their mind is shut down or half asleep all the time (fatigue is also a symptom).

bipolar disorder

A large-scale study at the University of Michigan on 612 women who had bipolar disorder or depression found via brain scanning that they actually had different brain activity to the control group, helping explain their claim of having ‘fuzzy thinking’.

Adult ADHD

Adult ADHD could cause something similar to brain fog, in that the mind is so active it can feel overloaded, and there can be moments of what can feel like ‘thought fatigue’ after hyperactive highs.

Why do things like stress and anxiety leave me with a foggy brain?

When your brain experiences a situation that causes stress or anxiety, the cortex (rationalisation) is turned down, along with the hippocampus (learning and memory). The amygdala (reaction to danger), however, is turned up. So you become less able to be rational and sort information and instead become hyper-vigilant.

This is not only a switch in your regular brain functioning, it doesn’t seem to leave much of your brain space for other things. And with ongoing anxiety, your brain can be in this ‘red alert’ state constantly.

Then there are the hormones released when we feel stressed. It’s an invigorating cocktail to provide enough energy to handle things, but it sends the brain into a spin that is ultimately exhausting. For example, the high levels of cortisol leave you buzzy but eventually lead to a crash. And fatigue then adds to your inability to think straight.

What do I do if I have brain fog?

Learning how to manage stress and anxiety is a good idea. This lowers your body’s ‘fight or flight’ mode, meaning you are less stimulated and your clear thoughts have a better chance of returning. Things like self-care and exercise are useful. Mindfulness has also been shown in clinical studies to help stress.

If it’s ongoing stress behind your foggy head, anxiety that won’t stop, you are also experiencing low moods, or if you suspect your brain fog is connected to adult ADHD or past trauma, it’s highly advisable to seek support.

A professional counsellor or therapist can help you quickly ascertain what is driving your brain into a fog, as well at what steps you can now take to regain clarity of thought.

Harley Therapy puts you in touch with some of London’s best psychotherapists and counselling psychologists. Not in the UK? Consider Online Therapy.


Andrea M. Darcy therapy coachAndrea M. Darcy is a health and wellbeing writer as well as mentor who often writes about trauma, relationships, and ADHD. She lives with c-PTSD and ADHD herself, so knows a thing or two about brain fog!  Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Anxiety & Stress

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