Chronic illness | invisible illness | brain fog | brain fog at work | working with a chronic illness
Accommodations and disability benefits, Challenges, Work Life

What it Feels Like to Work with Brain Fog and What You Can Do About it

Brain fog! Arrgh! Brain fog is probably one of my most frustrating and debilitating symptoms. It can cause forgetfulness, confusion, stupidity, and the inability to think or concentrate. It also can cause brain fatigue which can trigger my other symptoms such as difficulty with speech, sensory overload, physical fatigue, pain in my brain and spinal cord and dystonia.

My Challenges with Brain Fog

If you’re curious, here’s a snapshot of what it’s like for me when I experience brain fog:

1. Senses are quickly overstimulated – If I leave work when the sun is shining I have to put my hands on top of my forehead to block out the sun because my eyes can’t take the brightness. I have brown eyes and squinting is usually sufficient when the sun isn’t directly in my eyes.

I also end up staring at the ground while walking because looking forward is way too much stimulation for my brain, and it makes me feel off balance. If I do have to look up I have to shield the sides of my eyes as well – kind of like blinders for horses to reduce the overstimulation.

2. It feels like I pulled an all-nighter. Or that feeling you get when you’ve been working really hard on something. You’re entirely over-focused on it and once it’s over your brain is fried. Take that feeling and magnify it by at least 10.

3. My brain physically hurts. It’s not a headache because my skull and face don’t hurt. In fact, I can feel the pain inside my skull and sometimes down my neck within my body. I’m guessing the pain is in the spinal cord because the pain is definitely not in my muscles or bones.

4. When I’m walking my eyes have a hard time focusing. Sitting is always better when the brain fog kicks in.

5. I make simple mistakes and when I mean simple I’m not talking about simple mental math mistakes. I’m talking about tasks much easier than that.For example, checking off the wrong box in a checklist. I know which box needs to be checked off and I really think I checked off the correct box until I go back to check off a new item and I notice I previously checked the wrong box.

This happened to me multiple times in one sitting at work. I finished up what I needed to do on that project and got the heck out of dodge. I ended up having to take two days off after that to help lift the fog.

6. Things can be really confusing. My boss sent me a request at the end of the day once. I could feel my brain fog was coming on. When I read the request, I had absolutely no idea what the heck he wanted.

I told myself not to worry about it right now and to revisit it in the morning when my brain was fresh. When I reread the email the next morning, I knew exactly what he was asking for, and it was quite a simple request.

7. If I don’t watch it, my brain fog will trigger brain fatigue, my dystonia, and physical fatigue. For me, there is a difference between brain fatigue and physical fatigue.

8. I lose all analytical thinking abilities. My profession deals with data and analysis. When my brain fog comes on, I literally cannot do it. I don’t understand the concepts I use day in and day out, and any thinking about it fatigues my brain even more.

Different Types of Brain Fog

I have two types of brain fog. Stealth brain fog which is much harder to detect and quick onset brain fog. I much prefer the quick onset brain fog because my brain is essentially shouting you’ve overdone it! Rest or else…

The stealth brain fog can come on gradually, or it can be a result of a quick onset brain fog that seems to have gotten better, but really it hasn’t. I may think it’s gone because I rested, but sometimes I no longer realize I still have the fog because my brain is so fatigued it can’t register it. Here are some signs I look for to see if I’m functioning (or not!) with stealth brain fog.

  • Am I confused more than normal?
  • Am I having a hard time grasping what is expected of me?
  • Do I feel like my IQ has dropped?
  • The best way I’ve found is to compare myself doing a task that I routinely do. If I notice my performance isn’t up to the standard I normally perform at then I know I’m experiencing brain fog. This is sometimes the only way I can determine whether I have stealth brain fog because my brain is not functioning well enough to tell me otherwise.

Disclaimer: The following is from my personal experience and research and should be used for informational purposes only. Please see my Disclaimer page for more information.

What should you do when brain fog comes on at work?

If it’s before lunch,

Assess how you are feeling. Can you take a 10 min break to relax and see if that helps? If you’re also feeling physically fatigued, you may want to consider going home.

At this stage, you don’t want to push your body because if your body is like mine you could be on the path to a flare up if you don’t take care of yourself.

Sometimes caffeine will help give my brain a jolt, and I can make it through the rest of the day okay.

If it’s mid day,

Take your full lunch break. Give your brain a break. If you drive to work then consider taking a nap or rest in your car. Do not do any work during your lunch break, not even checking email.

Reassess when your lunch is over. If you can work on items that don’t require a lot of brain power then try to work on those first to see if the fog has lifted. If the fog doesn’t get better or gets worse, you may want to consider going home.

If it’s at the end of the day,

Try and do tasks that don’t take a lot of brain power till the end of the day. It’s probably best not to start any new projects or anything that requires any in-depth thinking. If that’s not an option, consider whether or not you should go home.

Should you power through it?

From personal experience, trying to power through brain fog only makes things worse because:

  1. My production rate and quality of work can decline rapidly.
  2. It puts me on the path to a flare up if I keep pushing through it. Will pushing through one day lead me to a flare up? Maybe. Maybe not, but multiple days will. Then my body will rebel, and I’ll be laid out in the bed or on the couch for at least a day or more.

Should you inform your boss?

Telling your boss about your brain fog is a personal decision.

It took me a long time to disclose when I was having brain fog to my boss. I will say, once I told my boss about the brain fog it has made it easier for me at work. I explained to him what happens when it comes on and how it affects me and my ability to work.

I’m now always honest if I have to miss work, come in late or leave work early due to the fog. My boss would rather me leave and have someone else cover for me or wait until my brain is functioning again than for me to provide him with subpar work.

If you have a disabling symptom, I think it’s best to disclose it, even if you don’t share your diagnosis. Please note, that I didn’t tell my boss until I was also using FMLA and an ADA accommodation. This allowed me protection in case there was any retaliation.

If you have a very understanding and accommodating boss you may not need to have protections put in place but sometimes these accommodations are necessary, and that’s why they’re available.

If you’re still unsure whether you should talk to your boss, you may want to seek advice from your Human Resources (HR) department. You can tell them in confidence and they should be able to provide you with some options.

Should you get an ADA accommodation or FMLA put in place?

I recommend talking to HR about an ADA accommodation and/or FMLA if you’re experiencing the following due to your brain fog:

  • You’re frequently missing work days
  • You’re frequently coming in late or leaving early
  • Your job performance is starting to suffer

It’s best to be proactive in this situation because you don’t want to sit back and say nothing and then get a bad review. If you don’t have an ADA accommodation or FMLA you could be at risk for being put on notice due to poor job performance. If you have one of these in place, you can at least point to it during your review and say that accommodations have been made and improvements in job performance should occur or have already occurred as a result of them.

A few links that can help you sort out work accommodations and benefits are:

Ways to Prevent Brain Fog

There are only a few things I’ve found that can help prevent brain fog.

  • REST! I have scheduled rest times in my day. Yes, they are scheduled so I don’t miss them.
    • The first rest time is taking my hour lunch away from my desk. This helps my brain immensely and helps get rid of any brain fog that’s starting to creep in.
    • I rest for 45 min to an hour after work before I pick up my kids. Again this not only helps my brain fog but it helps to reduce my fatigue overall.
  • Pacing myself and not overdoing it. This one can be hard to do sometimes especially when unexpected life events happen. If unexpected life events do occur, I try to give myself extra rest times the next day.
  • Sleep. Getting enough sleep is vital but may be tricky if you’re a parent of small children or suffer from insomnia.
  • Earplugs. I requested an ADA Accommodation to work in a private space when multiple people were talking in my general area. I was denied that BUT my employer bought me some really nice earplugs from Eargasm Earplugs. These do help block out a lot of the noise so my brain doesn’t have to work as hard concentrating on work and blocking out the noise.

Don’t be too Hard on Yourself

If brain fog is a new symptom for you, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t notice it right away. When I relapsed, I had brain fog for 8 months straight and didn’t know it. Yes, you read that correctly.

I was just trying to power through it every day. My work performance suffered tremendously, not to mention the relationship I had with my boss tanked.

It wasn’t until I cut my hours back when I finally applied for FMLA and short term disability that my brain fog lifted. It was only then that I realized I had been living all those months with constant brain fog.

After that, I make it a point to pay attention to when it starts coming on. Now when I start to feel it, I make sure I rest. But even now I still overdo it sometimes and end up with flare-ups. It’s a thin line that I have to walk and sometimes my body can handle and sometimes it can’t.

Learning to live with brain fog takes a lifestyle change and acceptance that your brain is different than it used to be. This was not an overnight process for me, but once I started to accept it my quality of life did improve. The Mighty has an article called 25 ‘Hacks’ That Can Make Life With Brain Fog Easier which you may find helpful.

Brain Fog is Different for Everyone

You and I may not experience brain fog the same way. The Mighty has a post called 28 People With Chronic Illness Explain What ‘Brain Fog’ Feels Like to Them, and it shows just how different everyone’s experience with brain fog can be. Numbers 2, 10, 23 align with me the most. Number 2 did make me chuckle a little since my background is in math.

Do you have brain fog? If so, how do you manage it? Comment below and let us know. 🙂

Brain fog | working with brain fog | brain fog with chronic illness | invisible illness

Sara at Managing Chronic

Sara has worked in corporate America for almost 15 years, and she's worked the last eight years with FND. Her FND comes with paroxysmal dystonia, chronic fatigue, brain fog, sensory overload, muscle pain, and more. She is currently a part-time career woman, a mom and a wife.

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  1. Heather says:

    I have brain fog and dyslexia. So not only do I mix up letters and numbers but my brain gets tired is what I call it. So for me it can be hard to tell the difference. But I agree when I am tired I have to stop and rest but you have a job that you can do that and you are lucky. I worked at many jobs like cashier or sales where you don’t have the luxury of leaving work early I have had debilitating migraines and I could not leave work because they had no one that wanted to work in my store so they made me stay.

  2. Laura Rudmin says:

    I think I might have brain fog or something similar. So far it seems to occur during times of high estrogen, which can restict blood flow to arms, heart, and brain causing pain and many other symptoms. I get so my speech slurs, I can’t think about multiple things at once, I lose coordination, it is hard to walk, I say nonsense things and I can’t change my behavior even though I am aware of it. The attacks upset my kids and it is not safe to drive. Sometimes I can end this within an hour by eating a combination of cranberry juice, yogurt, and wheat germ (acids and vitamins, I guess). Other times it takes hours, usually with a nap.

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