“All of us at anxietycentre.com have experienced debilitating anxiety. But we’ve also overcome it and returned to normal and lasting health. Because we know the hardship anxiety unwellness can cause, we are committed to helping others, with over 30 years of service.” - Jim Folk, President, anxietycentre.com

Brain Fog, Foggy Head Anxiety Symptoms

Jim Folk author
Written by: Jim Folk.
Medically reviewed by: Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated: October 4, 2019


brain fog anxiety symptom image

Brain fog is often a symptom of anxiety disorder, including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and others.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your anxiety symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test or Anxiety Disorder Test. The higher the rating, the more likely it could be contributing to your anxiety symptoms, including having brain fog.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and having brain fog.

Brain fog, foggy head anxiety symptoms description:

Brain fog, foggy head is often described as:

  • Your head, mind, and brain feel foggy or like in a fog.
  • It feels like you have a foggy head, foggy mind.
  • You have difficulty thinking, concentrating, and/or forming thoughts.
  • Your thinking feels like it is muddled and impaired.
  • Some people describe this symptom as being “foggy-headed” or having a “foggy head.”
  • It seems as if your thoughts are illusive, and things that you once knew seem hard to comprehend or recall.
  • It feels like your short-term memory isn’t as good as it used to be.
  • It feels like normal intellectual tasks seem much more difficult.
  • You find it hard to focus and concentrate.
  • You are more forgetful (forget things that you normally wouldn’t).
  • You have difficulty focusing on and carrying on conversations.
  • Your thoughts seem like in a cloud.
  • Your thinking isn’t as clear as it normally is.
  • Your head feels foggy, clouded, muddled, and 'off.'

Brain fog, foggy head can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may feel foggy headed once in a while and not that often, feel it off and on, or feel it all the time.

Brain fog, foggy head may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.

Brain fog, foggy head can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.

Brain fog, foggy head can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. It can also come in waves, where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.

Brain fog, foggy head can change from day to day and from moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

What causes brain fog, foggy head?

Medical Advisory

Relating to anxiety, there are a number of reasons why brain fog and foggy head symptoms occur. Here are five:

1. An active stress response

Behaving apprehensively activates the stress response, a part of the body’s survival mechanism, which secretes powerful stress hormones into the bloodstream that prepare the body for emergency action.[1][2]

In addition to the many changes the stress response brings about, it also causes a change in brain functioning so that we are better equipped to deal with a threat.

The stress response causes many body-wide changes, including changing how the brain function. For instance, the stress response:

A. Increases activity in the areas of the brain responsible for fear detection and reaction (amygdala and others) and suppresses areas of the brain responsible for executive function (cortex)[2]

This change in brain function heightens awareness and reaction to danger so that we can react to it quickly rather than remaining in it while we figure things out.

While this is beneficial when in real danger, it can make rationalizing seem slow and difficult, which can be experienced as “brain fog” or “foggy brain.”

B. Increases electrical activity in parts of the brain[3]

Increased electrical activity causes an increase in thought generation. This change can cause our attention to be more easily sidetracked, which can cause split attention and focus making it seem like our thoughts are “foggy” and not “clear-headed.”

C. Suppresses the hippocampus – the learning and memory area of the brain[4][5]

Hippocampal suppression can make it more difficult for the brain to store and retrieve information.

Any of the above changes can cause a “brain fog” feeling.

2. Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can cause it to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness. We call this state “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are stimulants (also often referred to as "hyperarousal" or HPA axis dysregulation).[6][7][8] Hyperstimulation can cause the changes of an active stress response even though a stress response hasn’t been activated.

As we mentioned, the stress response suppresses the rationalization areas of the brain (the cortex) and increases activity in the fear centers of the brain (the amygdala, others). This combination reduces the ability to logically rationalize and process information while at the same time increases the awareness of danger, fear, apprehension, gloom and doom.

As hyperstimulation increases, so can the persistence of these brain function changes. Chronic brain function changes can cause chronic “brain fog” and “memory problems.”

3. Fatigue

Hyperstimulation taxes the body’s energy resources harder and faster than normal. Chronically taxed energy resources can cause the body to become tired more quickly.[9]  Fatigue can make processing, storing, and retrieving information difficult.

As well, studies have shown that the brain tires more quickly than the rest of the body.[10] An exhausted brain loses its ability to think, remember, and reason sooner than the body fatigues. This is why you can feel physically fine yet experience “brain fog” and mental fatigue.

4. Cognitive load fatigues the brain

Just as hyperstimulation can fatigue the body, psychological and emotional stress (cognitive load) can fatigue brain function.[11] A tired brain can cause issues with thinking, which can be experienced as “foggy” brain.

5. Sleep deprivation

Hyperstimulation often causes problems with sleep. Chronic sleep problems can impact energy levels and brain function, which can cause “foggy brain.”[12]

These are just seven of the many ways stress and chronic stress (hyperstimulation) can adversely affect concentration and short-term memory.

Another consideration is that many anxiety disorder sufferers become internally focused (ruminate about their health, how they feel, the implications of anxiety disorder and how that might affect their future, concerns about recovery, questions about recovery, what others will think because of their struggle with anxiety, how their struggle might affect loved ones, and so on).

Being internally focused can easily distract us away from external focus by all of the “what if” thinking. It’s common to become so obsessed with trying to figure out anxiety disorder that everything else takes a back seat, including our attention and focus on the external parts of our lives.

Internally focused and “what if” thinking can become so habituated and automatic that many sufferers aren’t even aware that they are doing it.

When short-term memory and concentration problems occur, many anxious people become concerned and think that they may be losing their minds, think that they may be on the verge of a complete mental breakdown, or think that their brain fog is an indication of a serious mental or biological illness. These anxieties can add even more stress to an already hyperstimulated body making symptoms worse.

Recovery Support members can read more about this symptom, including the other factors that can cause this symptom, under the “Brain Fog” anxiety symptom in the Symptoms section (chapter 9) in the Recovery Support area of our website.

How to get rid of brain fog, foggy head?

When brain fog and foggy head are caused by an active stress response, calming yourself down and containing your anxious behavior will bring an end to the active stress response. As the active stress response ends, it will bring an end to the stress response changes and their effects, including having brain fog and foggy brain.

When brain fog and foggy head are caused by chronic stress (hyperstimulation), such as from overly apprehensive behavior, working to reduce your body’s stress, containing your anxious behavior, and giving your body ample time to recover will bring an end to symptoms of hyperstimulation…in time. As your body recovers from hyperstimulation, all stress-caused symptoms diminish and eventually subside, including brain fog and foggy brain.

Because brain fog is a common symptom of anxiety and chronic stress, it needn’t be a cause for concern. It will subside when the body’s stress has returned to a healthy level.

Yes, brain fog and foggy head can be uncomfortable and interfere with thinking. But, they aren’t harmful. Again, brain fog and foggy head are common indications of chronic stress. Nothing more. Eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate the brain fog and foggy head symptoms in time.

Unfortunately, there generally aren’t quick-fix cures for this symptom. Eliminating it requires ending an active stress response or eliminating hyperstimulation. But as with all sensations and symptoms of stress (including the stress caused by apprehensive behavior), they will subside when the body’s stress is returned to a healthy level and the body has had sufficient time to recover.

Chapter 4 in the Recovery Support area provides a list of natural and practical ways to reduce stress and give your body what it needs to recover.

Chapter 9 in the Recovery Support area is our “Anxiety Symptoms” chapter. It contains every symptom associated with anxiety, along with in-depth descriptions, explanations, remedies, and the percentage of people who experience each symptom.

Therapy

The number one reason why anxiety disorder and its symptoms persist is because of unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety. This is why dealing with your anxiety issues is the most important work overall if you desire lasting success.

Since the majority of stress comes from behavior (the ways we think and act), addressing the core reasons for anxiety disorder can reduce and eliminate the unhealthy stress that often leads to hyperstimulation and symptoms, including this one.

Keep in mind that eliminating anxiety symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve overcome issues with anxiety. Anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. Eliminating anxiety symptoms means you’ve eliminated the unhealthy stress that is causing your symptoms. But if the underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety aren’t addressed, it’s just a matter of time until the body is overly stressed and symptomatic again.

Rebounds of symptoms and a return to a struggle with anxiety are caused for this very reason: the core issues that cause problematic anxiety haven’t been successfully addressed.

To eliminate issues with anxiety and symptoms once and for all, we need to eliminate the cause of problematic anxiety – the underlying factors that cause issues with anxiety. When you eliminate the cause of the problem, you eliminate the problem and the problem's symptoms.

If you have been struggling with anxiety and symptoms, we recommend connecting with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist to help you overcome your anxiety issues. Research has shown that working with an experienced therapist is an effective treatment for anxiety disorder.[13][14]

All of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists have personally experienced anxiety disorder and have overcome it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder combined with their Masters Degree and above professional training makes them a good choice when desiring to overcome anxiety disorder and its symptoms.

Moreover, getting therapy via teletherapy, distanced therapy, or e-therapy (telephone or online therapy) is as effective, if not more so, than in-person therapy.[15][16]

All of our recommended therapists are experienced at working with clients via distanced therapy and new technologies. We’ve found distanced therapy to be especially effective when working with anxious clients.


The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to address anxiety disorder and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed - the underlying factors that motivate apprehensive behavior - a struggle with anxiety disorder can return again and again. Identifying and successfully addressing anxiety's underlying factors is the best way to overcome problematic anxiety.


Additional Resources:


Return to Anxiety Disorders Signs and Symptoms section.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and coaching/counseling/therapy for problematic anxiety and its sensations and symptoms, including brain fog.


REFERENCES:

1. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response And Anxiety Symptoms.” anxietycentre.com, August 2019.

2. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.

3. Laine, Mikaela A, et al. “Brain Activation Induced by Chronic Psychosocial Stress in Mice.Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017.

4. "Stress Disrupts Human Thinking, But The Brain Can Bounce Back." ScienceDaily. Rockefeller University, n.d. Web. 04 June 2016.

5. Lucassen, Paul J., et al. “Neuropathology of stress.” NCBI PubMed, 8 Dec. 2013.

6. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

7. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.

8. Vogel, S, et al. “Stress Affects the Neural Ensemble for Integrating New Information and Prior Knowledge.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2018.

9. Mayo Clinic Staff. “How Stress Affects Your Body and Behavior.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 28 Apr. 2016.

10. Buxton, Madeline. “What ACTUALLY Makes You Tired During Exercise.” Fitness Magazine, Fitness Magazine, 31 Mar. 2017.

11. Mizuno, Kei, et al. "Mental fatigue caused by prolonged cognitive load associated with sympathetic hyperactivity." Behavioral And Brain Functions, 23 May 2011.

12. Walton, Alice G. “Why Your Brain Feels So Foggy From Sleep Deprivation.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 15 Jan. 2018.

13. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

14. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

15. Thompson, Ryan Baird, "Psychology at a Distance: Examining the Efficacy of Online Therapy" (2016). University Honors Theses. Paper 285.

16. Kingston, Dawn.“Advantages of E-Therapy Over Conventional Therapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 11 Dec. 2017.