Mental fog, sometimes known as brain fog, is closely linked with PTSD, along with other conditions such as persistent or chronic stress and mysterious illnesses like Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Women experiencing menopause also describe this phenomenon, but it is only in the latter two conditions that the cause is often thought to be primarily physical. In the case of PTSD, a physical malfunctioning that leads to dysregulation within the nervous system also means that the causation is both physical and mental. In all cases, the reality is that irrespective of whether mental fog is caused by acute or chronic stress, PTSD, or a primarily physical condition, the outcome is the same; a debilitating and upsetting sense of not firing on all cylinders or as Brits are fond of saying, wading through treacle.
Loss of the ability to think clearly and on your feet can be enough to cause significant stress, especially in people who were previously considered high functioning. Sufferers can feel disoriented, confused, short-tempered and alone, thinking that the experience is unique to them and that nobody else would understand, which further strains positive mental and emotional health and well-being – especially on a cumulative basis.
What is Mental Fog?
Mental fog isn’t a medical condition per se; however, it is a widely recognised term used to describe a notable decrease in cognitive functioning and a feeling that your brain is not operating as it used to. Some of the symptoms include:
- Problems with memory and word recall
- Lack of alertness and energy
- Inability to concentrate and find focus
In short, people experiencing mental fog struggle to find mental clarity in the same way that we find it difficult to see our way through an actual fog, where things are murky and feel laboured. On a physical level, the condition can cause flagging energy levels, headaches, inflammation – including the brain – and sleep issues (either insomnia or, conversely, feeling sleepy all the time). In terms of mental functioning, people can become easily confused, anxious and, as a result, start to withdraw as they struggle to form or maintain emotional attachments. Most importantly, people of any age can experience mental fog, which quashes the stereotype of only affecting people who are ‘old and dotty’.
While many factors, such as diet, hormonal changes, medication, physical deconditioning from lack of exercise, and a host of physical conditions, can influence brain health and functioning, prolonged stress, as seen in PTSD, can seriously impact brain function. This places more pressure on an already overtaxed brain and body, affecting everything from blood pressure to the immune system, can make people vulnerable to accidents and tip sufferers into full-blown depression.
As is so often the case, having mental health disorders such as PTSD can increase your risk of having brain fog, but it can also work the other way, meaning that having brain fog can increase your risk of developing PTSD. Living with a constant lack of clarity and inability to think and function as before can be very painful and distressing for sufferers, exacerbating anxiety and depression, which can become chronic left unchecked. As this continues, changes in brain function occur due to biochemical imbalances, hindering the production and effective functioning of neurons, which are our information messengers. Neurons use electrical impulses and chemical signals to pass information around the brain and into the remainder of the nervous system, which explains compromised functioning and a general dulling of the senses if these areas are not sparking correctly.
The Role of Hormones in Mental Fog
Sufferers of PTSD show increased cortisol and norepinephrine responses to stress along with the brain regions that are thought to play a crucial role in PTSD, including the hippocampus (memory, spatial awareness), amygdala (threat detection), and medial prefrontal cortex (emotion regulation). All of these areas become vulnerable with repeated exposure to trauma, showing long-term dysregulation of norepinephrine and cortisol systems, leading to impairment of healthy functioning. Too much fight-or-flight response for too long when taken out of the context of survival, becomes unhelpful when there is no genuine reason to be in survival mode. Many studies over several decades have outlined these neurobiological abnormalities in PTSD patients, whether the condition results from abusive, traumatic experiences, traumatic brain injury, or substance abuse.
In a nutshell, when there is an imbalance in the brain (on the up or downside) that impacts any of the neurotransmitters, along with placing stress on particular areas of the brain, there will be implications for mental health and normal functioning of the brain. The good news is that all is not lost as the hippocampus, for example, has shown an unexpected capacity for neuronal plasticity and regeneration. The hippocampus is instrumental in spatial processing and navigation along with storing memories, especially long-term memories. As memory is a significant factor in mental fog, this is good news!
So, we’ve seen that in PTSD, the brain is not functioning to optimum levels. The threat detection system is permanently switched on, which in turn activates the sympathetic nervous system, and the prefrontal cortex is unable to regulate good decision making in relation to a threat. In simple terms, the amygdala becomes hyperactive, and the prefrontal cortex effectively goes on strike. Additionally, the increase in stress hormones being pumped around the body creates a permanent feeling of edginess and affects the capacity for quality sleep, resulting in mental and physical fatigue – no wonder the brain feels foggy.
What Can Be Done to Help Combat Mental Fog?
- There is a strong link between vitamin B12 deficiency and mental fog, so increasing consumption of foods high in B12, taking a supplement, or having an intramuscular injection under medical supervision can help along with a host of other vitamins and minerals. Low vitamin D levels (especially) can also affect memory and mood, so ensuring optimum levels all year round is key. Similarly, EFAs (Essential Fatty Acids) in the form of omega-three oils found in oily fish, nuts, seeds, and soy are also highly effective.
- Unhealthy diets with high levels of sugars, caffeine, alcohol, artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and unsaturated or trans fats should also be addressed, as should foods containing monosodium glutamate (MSG often found in Asian foods). Dairy products and peanuts have also been found to have an impact, so an exclusion process can be helpful to see if any or all of these have an impact on an individual’s issues.
- Good sleep hygiene is also very important as quality sleep is at the heart of the healthy functioning of most of our body’s processes. As we’ve seen, it definitely has a substantial impact on mental functioning, for better or for worse. Cutting down on the above additives and stimulants will aid in healthy sleep. In addition, observing good sleep practices such as settling into a routine, cutting down on blue light exposure (put down the smartphone!) and experimenting with relaxing essential oils can all help.
- At the other end of the spectrum is exercise, including meditative practice such as qigong and yoga, which clear the mind, help with breathing and ease stress. Swimming, hydrotherapy, or even just taking a bath can all help too.
- Consulting your GP about having a full blood work-up could also prove worthwhile as there may be underlying physical conditions that are contributing to mental fog along with the mental challenges posed by prolonged stress. These could include thyroid conditions, anaemia, issues with blood sugar, IBD, MS, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and other issues relating to widespread inflammation. As outlined, there is an inextricable link between the mental and the physical, so one cannot be addressed to the exclusion of the other.
- Migraine is also a big contributor to mental fog to which any migraine sufferer will attest. Sometimes beta-blockers will be prescribed, which can also be of use with particular neurotransmitter imbalances.
Of course, no one should go it alone when it comes to dealing with the causes of PTSD. Practices like journalling, meditation, and hypnotherapy can all help. Still, it is highly likely that whatever trauma was responsible for the prolonged stress which has given rise to mental fog will need to be unpicked with the guidance of a mental health professional. In some cases, specific treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing Therapy (EMDR) will be highly effective in treating PTSD.
Lastly, changing your environment, being more social, taking courses etc., can all help to rebalance brain chemistry and form new and healthy neurons so that outside connections can heal internal connections.
If you have a client or know of someone struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and outpatient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For more information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
 “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder And Declarative Memory Functioning: A Review”. Vol 13, no. 3, 2011, pp. 346-351. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.31887/dcns.2011.13.2/ksamuelson. Accessed 30 July 2021.
 “Traumatic Stress: Effects On The Brain”. Vol 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 445-461. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.31887/dcns.2006.8.4/jbremner. Accessed 30 July 2021.
 “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Neurobiological Impact Of Psychological Trauma”. Vol 13, no. 3, 2011, pp. 263-278. Informa UK Limited, doi:10.31887/dcns.2011.13.2/jsherin. Accessed 30 July 2021.
 The Role of Nutrients in Protecting Mitochondrial Function and Neurotransmitter Signaling: Implications for the Treatment of Depression, PTSD, and Suicidal Behaviors