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The Hidden Cause of Your Brain Fog

If you're worried about your intelligence, consider this invisible culprit.

Let's talk about two kinds of anxiety. There is acute anxiety that causes a temporary brain lock. And there is chronic anxiety which operates as a silent, invisible force.

First, let's consider acute anxiety. You've probably observed that when you feel anxious, your thinking center may shrink to the size of a pinto bean. Often we can identify a high level of anxiety as the culprit responsible for a temporary brain glitch. We conclude that we're frightened and anxious rather than the victim of a plummeting I.Q.

I am quite familiar with anxiety turning my brain to mush. I’ll bring someone along to any important medical appointment because I know that my mind is apt to race, go blank, flood or freeze. Also, my sense of direction, shaky in the best of circumstances, is especially vulnerable to the brain-numbing effects of anxiety.

Once, when my younger son, Ben, was attending middle school, I was called at work to come immediately and take him to the hospital. The school nurse told me that Ben was reporting the following symptoms: his right hand was numb and the numbness was spreading up his arm, his vision was impaired (“words were coming off the page”). A brain tumor, I thought. My son has a brain tumor.

I flashed on Ben’s earlier stint in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, as a result of a skateboard accident that had caused a concussion. Maybe a blood clot-related to the concussion had dislodged itself and Ben would die shortly. Or maybe he was having a stroke. Did the school nurse think Ben was having a stroke? Should I call 911?

The nurse suggested I simply come to school and pick up my son.

I headed toward the school sick to my stomach, searching unsuccessfully for any medical explanation less disastrous than the ones I had come up with. The hospital was only a couple of minutes away, but I doubted my ability to find my way there, locate the emergency entrance, park, and sign my name. So when I arrived at the school, I grabbed the school social worker, and all but dragged her out to my car to guide me to the hospital, ignoring the fact that I was told that she needed to stay on the school premises.

Ben did not have a brain tumor, a migrating blood clot or stroke. On that terrifying day, he had his first migraine-from-hell. This possibility didn’t occur to me since I didn't know that migraines can mimic serious neurological symptoms. Ben’s migraines were indeed from hell, but this diagnosis was a huge relief.

In a crisis, most of us can readily identify anxiety as the culprit behind our poor mental functioning. In these situations, we can usually forgive ourselves for our temporary brain-lock and move on.

But anxiety also operates as a chronic, underground force that we don't identify because it operates like a silent thrum beneath the surface. We fail to identify anxiety as the culprit behind our poor functioning, our downward spiraling relationships, and our low self-regard. We may not even feel anxious.

When you can identify anxiety as impeding your thinking, you can work on managing it better. It’s obviously hard to feel good about yourself when anxiety disrupts your memory and concentration, leaving you unable to read, write, study, analyze, or take in new information.

But when anxiety operates underground—when it's the soup you're swimming around in—it's easy to confuse the signs and symptoms of anxiety with your essential YOU.

Never forget that anxiety is just anxiety. Always remember that every one of us is larger and more complex than the mischief of anxiety, fear, and shame may have us believe.

More from Harriet Lerner Ph.D.
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