We all have days where our brains just don’t work. We struggle to concentrate, and simple tasks seem to take herculean efforts to complete.
But people with bipolar struggle with brain fog (or mild cognitive impairment) more often than people without a mental illness.
Personally, I’m struggling to write this post because the fog in my head is so thick I can barely string two thoughts together. In the past week, work has been a real battle. I’ve written out To Do lists to try to keep myself on track, but I often find myself staring blankly at my computer screen – thoughtless.
I’ll drift in this thoughtless state for hours, unaware that I’m losing time. In the moment, I have great difficulty focusing on conversations and tuning out distractions. It’s impossible for me to simply sit and watch a TV show. I feel completely disconnected from anything that’s going on around me.
This brain fog is actually typical for me. Unfortunately, I consider it a normal state of being. While most people know about the manic highs and depressive lows of bipolar, they don’t often associate bipolar with symptoms usually associated with ADHD.
Fixing this involves practicing some self care.
The brain fog is real. Stop beating yourself up!
The fact is, I’m dealing with a real part of my bipolar disorder. The South African College of Applied Psychology reports on a study conducted by the University of Michigan Medical School and Depression Center. The test required “sustained cognitive concentration by the subjects, as well as brain scans on a large sampling of people who had experienced either major depression or bipolar disorder.”
People with bipolar didn’t do so well in this test. In addition, when the researches reviewed the brain scans, they found that the scans of those with bipolar had “markedly different levels of activity in the right posterior parietal cortex.” As in, they had very little activity in this part of the brain.
This is the part of the brain that takes care of “executive function – things like problem solving, reasoning, and working memory. Without much activity in this part of the brain, day-to-day tasks become difficult to handle, and things get foggy.
Try to rest
BP Magazine quotes Mady Hornig, MD: “Brain fog is an inability to really punch through,” says Mady Hornig, MD, an associate professor at Columbia University Medical Center. “It’s a vague sense of what you’re trying to retrieve, but you can’t focus in on it, and the effort to harness the thought can be as draining as physical activity.”
When you spend all day trying to “punch through,” trying to get at that one thought, trying to push a task to completion, trying, trying, trying… You reach the end of the day completely exhausted and feeling like you haven’t accomplished anything. At least that’s the way I feel.
Again, I have to remember that I am dealing with a very real part of my bipolar disorder.
Break it down/Write it down
When I’m faced with a complex task, the best thing I can do for myself is break it down into smaller, more manageable pieces. … Of course, then I have to actually try to accomplish those small pieces.
The next best thing I can do is write myself a To Do list. Sometimes, though, even this task is too much for my foggy brain to take. My To Do list helped this week, in that it helped remind me of everything that I was not getting done.
When I’m in meetings, I take lots of notes. I can’t guarantee that I will remember anything. And I try not to beat myself up if I can’t remember how to spell a word or if I can’t come up with an answer on the spot. This is really difficult for me right now because I work with a lot of Type A personalities. They’re always “on.” And I feel like there’s not enough caffeine in the world for me to keep up with them.
I am at the point where I am considering talking to my psychiatrist about medication for my symptoms. But I want to tread very carefully here. Many of the medications used to treat ADHD symptoms will set off mania in people with bipolar.
Right now, I’m feeling pretty stable on my medication. I actually just came off of an anti-depressant that I believe was causing me to shift into mania. I want to be very careful not to do anything that would upset the balance I’ve achieved.
The other concern I have is that ADHD medication can be abused. My history as an addict might prevent me from pursuing this course of action. Above all else, I must remain sober.
But something has to give. This brain fog is affecting my work, which is affecting my stress level, which is affecting my sleep and mood. I will eventually find myself working long hours into the night, feverishly trying to finish a work project that should have been completed during regular work hours (but for brain fog).
If you are also struggling with brain fog – feel like you’re drifting aimlessly, senselessly through a twilight cloud – know that you’re not alone. The bipolar battle is real. It’s not just the manic highs and depressive lows – it’s the foggy, muddy inbetweens.