Stop Brain Fog: Eight New Strategies for Surviving Long COVID

Stan Goldberg, PhD

Almost 57 million people struggle to live with brain fog caused by long COVID–not knowing that relief is immediately possible through the use of eight simple strategies.

What is Brain Fog?

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was asked in 1964 to define obscenity. His response was he would be hard-pressed to define it, but, he said, “I know it when I see it.” The same problem exists for brain fog resulting from long COVID.

Ask someone how they would define their brain fog, and most likely, they will describe a difficulty in thinking. Some cite “fuzzy thoughts” or memory issues. Unfortunately, neither description is sufficient for effective treatment. For that, we need to look at how the brain processes information.

Pre-COVID Information Processing

The brain is a complex organ with two major purposes. The first is to keep you alive and the second is to make sense of the world. When everything worked perfectly before COVID, you whizzed through a novel, solved crossword puzzles quickly, and easily followed plots on your favorite TV show. But then came the virus.

And when you thought it decided to move on—based on a negative COVID test—you relaxed because you became a survivor rather than a mortality statistic. Although the virus spent its deadly power, it gave you a mysterious going-away present—something that plays havoc with your ability to think.

Post-COVID Brain Fog

You try reading a novel and have difficulty remembering what you just read two pages ago. Frustrated, you put down the book and begin a crossword puzzle but become alarmed when you couldn’t recall a three-letter word for a dessert beginning with the letter “p.” Disheartened, you decide to do something requiring less effort, like watching your favorite TV series. However, after 10 minutes you can’t follow the plot of an episode you have seen “umpteenth” times.

The physicist Michio Kaku said the brain is more complicated than anything in the universe—something most neurologists would agree with. While it may be complex, the way it processes information is knowable, even to those with little understanding of neurology. To keep you safe in the world and fully engaged, the brain must attend, understand, store, retrieve, and use information.

Think of COVID as a speck of dust in an old-fashioned pocket watch. The watch may stop or provide incorrect times depending upon where the speck lands. COVID may affect any of the four information processing stages in the same way. How it does that is still a mystery. Worse, a problem at an early step, such as understanding, will be reflected in every following step.

Strategies for Treating Brain Fog

The first step in treating brain fog is to identify which of the four stages of information processing is affected, and then you can hone in on appropriate strategies. While many strategies are designed for each specific stage, you can immediately use eight general strategies regardless of where the problem resides.

Slow Down

Think of slowing down as the queen or king of change strategies, one that syncs your behaviors to a brain affected by COVID. How much should you slow down? There aren’t any rules, but research suggests the slower you do a behavior, the more likely you will compensate for what the COVID virus is doing to your brain. Think of the battle between what you want to do and the brain’s impaired capability as two cogs of a machine that don’t quite mesh. Slow down one of the cogs (i.e., your efforts), and everything is simpatico. Yes, you may be having more difficulty comprehending written material, but slowing down your reading, might give your brain just enough additional milliseconds to process the information correctly.

Sleep More

Shakespeare wrote, “Sleep that relieves the weary laborer and heals hurt minds.” These words, written more than 400 years ago for Macbeth. have been scientifically validated for improving your body’s physical and cognitive health. While the “unaffected” brain requires sleep to function, the long COVID brain needs even more. So don’t try to work through your fatigue—accept it, cancel activities, and employ the techniques found in Arianna Huffington’s book The Sleep Revolution.

Accept Lower Thresholds

Long COVID affects cognitive thresholds. Before COVID, you could work on a project nonstop for hours and now the same activity exhausts you in 40 minutes. While you may not be able to do much to increase your energy, by accepting lower thresholds, you will be at greater peace with your invader.

Better Nutrition and Hydration

The brain needs proper nutrition and hydration. Think of its needs as similar to your muscles. With adequate nutrition and hydration, you can prepare for that charity walk. Ignore its needs, you may have to stop after 50 yards when you experience cramps and weakness.

Challenge Your Brain

How often have you laughed at what seemed to be mindless activities in senior centers, like painting vases, playing bingo, puzzles, or knitting? What research has shown is that creative and cognitive activities can result in the development of new neurons and connections, even in people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Who would think that doing a simple puzzle or creating a new dish for a dinner party would be the equivalent of taking your brain to the gym? So when you get that urge to deal with brain fog by watching re-runs of Law and Order, resist and write a poem, do a flower arrangement, or pick up your granddaughter’s 20-piece Old McDonald Farm puzzle. Your brain will thank you.

Structure the Environment

The environment you functioned in before long COVID may no longer suite your current needs. When your information processing ability is affected by COVID, it’s time to corral the trouble-makers affecting your ability to process information. Examples are noise, multi-tasking, activities without breaks, etc.

Simplify

Although the brain can handle the most complex problems, it functions better with simplicity. Identify the areas in which COVID is creating problems, and simplify them. For example, create a one-pot dish instead of making a five-course dinner for a party. Instead of scheduling five activities for the week, limit it to two.

Strengthen Memory

The majority of people with long COVID have reported problems in various memory stages. You can strengthen your memory through the use of aids (e.g., lists, cues, etc.), multiple practice sessions, and enriching what you are trying to remember (e.g., instead of trying to remember the name of a person you just met, create a story about his name.) The stronger the memory you create, the easier it will be to retrieve.

These are only a few of the many behavioral strategies that will help you adapt to long-COVID until researchers can identify how the virus affects our brains and what pharmacologically can be done to eliminate it. So rest assured, your symptoms are real, you are not crazy, and recovery is possible.

Preventing Senior Moments, by Stan Goldberg

Offers practical and achievable prevention strategies for senior moments.

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