Mental Fog, Stress, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Wednesday, February 14 2018 Elizabeth Brico
Do you ever feel like you're in a mental fog, you can't think straight, or as though you have to labor to access even the simplest thoughts? I feel this way often, and it used to make me panic, like I was losing my mental faculties. Then I realized that "mental fog," aka "brain fog," (not clinical terms) or confusion can actually result from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Triggers, stress, and anxiety can heighten feelings of mental fog--leaving those of us with PTSD feeling even more vulnerable and confused during the very moments when we most need to feel safe and in control.
Why Mental Fog Is a Problem
Someone who has never experienced mental fog may think it sounds pretty mild in comparison to other symptoms of PTSD. Afterall, a flashback or panic attack certainly paints a more dramatic picture than the term "mental fog."
Imagine, however, that you are doing a big presentation at work. You have prepared and practiced; you did the work and you're ready to go. Then someone brings in a snack that has a triggering aroma--perhaps something you smelled while you were being attacked (You Can’t Always Avoid PTSD Triggers: Here's One Way to Cope). Suddenly, it's as though you completely slacked off. You scramble to remember the words you so carefully prepared, but you draw a complete blank. You look at your notes, but now they seem like they're written in a language you don't understand. The subject of discussion--normally your specialty--is incomprehensible. You've lost your entire foundation of knowledge.
Or imagine that you're walking to meet a friend. Your mind gets foggy, and you begin to lose your sense of direction. Suddenly reaching this location--which your smartphone says should be five minutes away--feels like a dangerous expedition. You can't understand directions. You are totally overwhelmed, even lost.
Mental fog can be disorienting, upsetting, and even terrifying. When you experience it on a regular basis, it can also cripple your self-esteem. Being unable to access words, ideas, and thoughts that used to come to you easily can make you feel demeaned and unintelligent -- at least that's how I feel.
What Causes Mental Fog?
There are many reasons why a person may experience mental fog. Poor nutrition or hydration, for example, can cause feelings of mental confusion. Other mental illnesses, like depression, can also result in similar "foggy" thinking. Trauma can also contribute to feelings of mental confusion.
When a healthy brain is confronted with extreme stress, some changes take place; for example, the parts of the brain that control rational thought, learning, and memory may temporarily shut off, giving control over to the amygdala, which helps assess danger. These are evolutionary tools developed to help humans survive in a dangerous world, but when a person develops PTSD, some of these natural responses become confused.
Someone with PTSD may become hyper-aroused if someone yells at her, even if that person is otherwise non-threatening. This happened to me recently; when someone yelled at me, I suddenly became unable to remember details from an event I'd been discussing, which had taken place only one day earlier. Half an hour later--once I'd calmed down--I could remember those details again, but it was already too late. The conversation was over.
Of course, this type of mental confusion is also a common side-effect of depression and even some medications. Because PTSD and depression can go hand-in-hand, it's important to try to take note of what seems to accompany your bouts of mental fog. Are you feeling down and lethargic, or triggered and stressed? The answer may dictate what treatment plan is best for you.
How To Help Mental Fog
Because the exact causes of mental fog are unknown, there doesn't exist a cure-all for the symptom. A good start is to ensure you are as physically healthy as possible. Whenever you can, stay hydrated, eat a well-balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get sufficient sleep (I know; that's all much easier said than done). Dehydration, hunger, and lack of mobility can all lead to mental confusion, so mitigating these factors as much as possible will help reduce the parts of your symptoms--if any--that are related to physical factors.
It's important to discuss your symptoms and triggers with your PTSD trauma therapist and other members of your support team, so you can design a plan of action that will help keep your mind clear. Some of the options may surprise you. Many people, for example, find simple mindfulness practices helpful in reducing mental fog.
For me, writing is one way I work through mental fog on my own. I've found that even when I have trouble communicating aloud, I am able to articulate that same thought pretty well through writing. Other people may find that the languages of math or painting suit them better and help clear their minds. In our society, we sometimes overvalue the importance of verbal communication. If communicating through art or science helps you feel calm and capable, then use that to your advantage.
Mental fog can be confusing and scary, but if you learn to understand your strengths and triggers, you can still lead a fulfilling life.