Having lived and worked in London for 20 years I know what fog is.
Fog is dreary. Fog is typically cold, wet and makes me want to stay in bed. Fog can cause me to step in dog poo because I couldn’t see it on the pavement.
Brain fog is different.
Although it is not an official scientific term, brain fog is where you’re tired physically and mentally and feel like you should be fine, but you’re not.
With brain fog people struggle to remember the simplest things. Daily working memory tasks like where you put your keys, your wallet, your phone, or where you parked your car can suddenly become more challenging to recall. Sometimes even remembering words and completing sentences can be a struggle.
Medically brain fog is associated with long COVID symptoms and post-COVID experiences.
I had a bad experience with brain fog last year without having COVID. On several occasions I’d leave my home only to return in a panic moments later because I couldn’t remember if I’d locked the front door. I also noticed I struggled to mentally focus on tasks. I had about 1 to 2 hours of concentration available and that was it.
The Inflatable Parrot
My experience with brain fog reminded me of the inflatable parrot scene in Revenge of the Pink Panther. This is the scene when Inspector Clouseau is undercover as a “salty Swedish sea dog” and speaks unintelligibly to a source on the foggy docks. He has an inflatable parrot on his shoulder that is deflating noisily, which Clouseau feverishly pumps his arm inside his raincoat to reinflate.
With brain fog I felt like a wilting parrot. I desperately needed something to pump me up. Ironically, it was binging on Peter Sellers movies and laughing my way through the Pink Panther, Monty Python, Mel Brooks and other classic comedies that I noticed I felt better.
I added daily laughter as a new habit. It worked so well I decided to add 2 other habits to my daily routine. Within 2 months I felt better and my thinking was clearer.
In this post I’ll write about that process of how I laughed, routinely connected with others, and bite-sized my exercise as new habits to boost my health and ultimately heal my brain fog. I’ll also summarise each new habit with a research-based lesson that I hope will simplify the process of you adopting your own self-healing pathway should you experience cognitive difficulties like brain fog.
Habit 1 – Laughing My Ass Off
Within a few days of consistently watching my favourite comedies I noticed that I could mentally function better. Laughter causes us to breathe and release important feel-good hormones like oxytocin and endorphins that are antidotes to stress and depression. There’s also the release of an important steroid hormone called DHEA that supports eustress (a.k.a., good stress). By lowering cortisol levels in the blood DHEA boosts your capacity for eustress, helping you feel more confident and curious and making you more productive.
Before I knew it my memory was functioning better. I noticed I could slowly remember where I put things, including my keys. I ordered an inflatable parrot to hang in my bedroom as a reminder to laugh every day.
Lesson 1: A laugh-a-day keeps mental fatigue away.
Habit 2 – Making Routine Connections
With my laugh-a-day habit yielding such joyous results, I started to research what was happening to me. I had no idea that brain fog was potentially so damaging to the brain.
I discovered that millions of people have suffered bouts with brain fog. According to one Oxford University study even after 2-years of having COVID sufferers can experience “cognitive deficit” (brain fog) along with psychiatric disorder.
In her book Beating Brain Fog: Your 30-Day Plan to Think Faster, Sharper, Better psychologist Dr Sabina Brennan estimates nearly 600 million people worldwide suffer from cognitive dysfunction like brain fog. She noted the brain loves routines. The brain seeks the most efficient methods to operate so it burns less glucose. Routines and habits are natural ways the brain optimises mental energy.
The problem during COVID, according to Dr Brennan, was the disruption to our daily routines. Social isolation and lockdown created stress in our brains that we hadn’t planned for.
Reaching into my neural bag of tricks I countered COVID restrictions by creating a new social routine. I decided to call various “friendlies” and loved ones on a regular basis.
Mornings were a good time to check-in with the people I love. Lunchtime and afternoons were reserved as my time for laughter. Closing the day at 6pm I’d check-in with a family member either online or on the phone, or even create a “happy hour” with a group of friends on a video chat.
I noticed I felt even better. By laughing and connecting with others I started to feel like I was more myself.
Lesson 2: Routine connection boosts mental attention
Habit 3 – Bite-Size Your Exercise
I’m a huge fan of Professor Stephen Porges. In his book The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe he presents his ground-breaking research. He mentions the importance of taking action and engaging socially with people we feel are safe as pathways to boosting our mental health.
Essentially, lockdown, social distancing, travel restrictions and social isolation cut us off from feeling safe. As we struggled with being connected physically and emotionally our nervous systems were pressured to “downregulate” into a survival related, energy conserving, low mood state of collapse. This is very similar to depression.
The problem is our nervous systems don’t reset themselves automatically, according to Dr Porges. Somehow, we must get a boost to get our brains working better so that our nervous systems can return to more healthy experiences.
From the perspective of the Polyvagal Theory, COVID wasn’t just a pandemic. It was the tip of a mental health iceberg that introduced the world to a collection of trauma-related symptoms.
According to a report from the World Health Organisation anxiety and depression rates surged 25 percent in the first year of COVID alone. In fact, I researched how brain fog is more like a trauma fog that has impacted mental health on a global scale. I had no idea how prevalent the connection was between COVID, cognitive dysfunction and trauma.
Having studied and worked with the Polyvagal Theory for years I remembered physical exercise as another tool in my neural arsenal to help clients improve mental health outcomes. I elected to include in my daily routines some of the exercises I created for my trauma clients. Following the Polyvagal process, I decided to take action to energise my nervous system from flop to pop.
In-between seeing clients, laughing my ass off, and routine calls to friends and family, I popped with simple exercises. Easy yoga stretches for 5 to 10-minutes, followed by a combination of push ups, burpees, and boundaries boxing exercises from my Yogaboxing system.
I even created a special routine called BodyFlow for my co-authors @Kate Purmal and @Lee Epting to support our award-winning book Composure: The Art of Executive Presence.
Lesson 3: Go from flop to pop using “bite-sized” exercise.
Following these 3 habits and 3 lessons I was able to recover from my brain fog within a few months. My big takeaway from the experience was brain fog can be temporary. By dedicating myself to importing 3 brain-healthy habits into my days I transformed cognitive dysfunction into cognitive health.
So can you.