What to Know About Brain Fog and Depression
Brain fog is a collection of symptoms that affect a person’s mental clarity. We share tips and treatment options to help reduce that fuzzy or foggy feeling.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
March 20, 2023
Table of Contents
Brain fog and depression
Here at Charlie Health, we talk a lot about the signs and symptoms of depression. Depression affects people differently, but it’s known to cause sad or anxious moods, low self-esteem, trouble sleeping, and changes in eating habits. Another notable symptom of depression is brain fog, sometimes called pseudodementia and false dementia.
Not everyone with a depressive disorder will experience brain fog, but some estimates suggest that people with major depression experience cognitive symptoms 85–94% of the time during depressive episodes.
For anyone who’s never experienced it, brain fog is a fuzzy or spacey feeling that can make it difficult to think clearly. Brain fog is pretty typical when over-tired, jet-lagged, or starting a new medication, but prolonged bouts of mental fogginess may be symptomatic of a bigger problem.
Below, we explain the connection between brain fog and mental health conditions like depressive disorders and ways to help clear your mind.
What is brain fog?
One way to define brain fog is a “lack of mental clarity.” Brain fog isn’t an official medical diagnosis but a collection of symptoms affecting a person’s ability to think, focus, and function.
Brain fog can cause a wide range of cognitive symptoms, such as:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty making decisions
- Delayed reaction times
- Mental fatigue
- An overall sense of feeling “mentally blocked”
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Causes of brain fog
Some studies show that depression can reduce cognitive functions, including our working memory, long-term memory, and ability to focus. When we’re forgetful or having trouble making decisions, we’re more likely to suffer from that feeling of brain fog.
So why does this happen? Researchers are still studying the link between depression and brain fog, but it seems like depression affects the neural networks in critical regions of the brain. For example, it can impact the hippocampus, which supports memory recall, the amygdala, which supports decision-making, and the basal ganglia, which promotes working memory performance.
Another cause of brain fog might be the medication you’re taking to treat your mental health condition. It may sound counterintuitive, but certain medications that are designed to combat cognitive issues related to depression can make the symptoms of brain fog worse. For example, specific selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and benzodiazepines can exacerbate these symptoms.
Other known causes of brain fog include:
- Stress and anxiety
- Sleep deprivation
- Nutrient deficiencies, such as a lack of vitamin B12 or vitamin D
- Viral infections, such as COVID-19
- Hormonal imbalances, such as thyroid disorders
- A medical condition linked to memory problems, such as Alzheimer’s disease
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Multiple sclerosis (MS)
Causes and risk factors for depression
One school of thought is that the better we understand the risk factors for depression, the better we understand its symptoms—including brain fog. We’re still learning about what causes depression in teens and young adults, but research suggests it’s likely a combination of factors.
Some factors that may contribute to the development of depressive symptoms include:
Family history of depression. You may be more likely to develop depression if someone in your family has dealt with depression or another serious mental health issue.
Stressful events or trauma. Stressful events – such as losing a loved one and sustained trauma in childhood – have been linked to depression into the teen and adult years.
Substance abuse. Smoking, alcohol use, and drug use are all linked to increased rates of major depressive disorder in adolescents. Substance abuse is also known to impair our senses and memory.
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How to treat brain fog and depression
Living with mental fatigue can be incredibly frustrating. It can impact your friendships, academic performance, and—importantly—your ability to prioritize your mental health. There are currently no treatments specifically for brain fog, but there are ways to manage depression and other mental health conditions causing cognitive issues.
Therapy and supported groups
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two types of talk therapy used to help people with depression cope with their symptoms and gain a healthy perspective on their condition. Peer support groups are another resource for people with depression and brain fog. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers various resources—including peer-supported groups, support groups for family members, and helpful tips for living with brain fog and other symptoms of depression.
In addition to psychotherapy, various lifestyle tweaks can help improve cognitive functioning. Getting enough sleep, following a balanced diet, and drinking plenty of water is essential. Meditation and exercise are great ways to help lower stress, but it’s best to avoid drugs and alcohol, which can impair your senses.
Research also shows that specific organizational skills and memory tricks can help to reduce brain fog and other cognitive symptoms.
- Break large tasks into small, more manageable ones to help avoid burnout
- Keep your items (wallet, keys, phone) in one place to avoid misplacing them
- Create reminders for yourself—whether it’s on your phone, in a planner, or by leaving notes around the house
- Avoid multitasking which can make it difficult to concentrate and reduce productivity
- Read more, even if it’s just a few pages per day
- Try puzzles, crosswords, and other matching games to help sharpen your memory
- Find new ways to stimulate your brain, such as taking a different route to school or listening to new music
- Leverage rhymes, visual or verbal cues, and repetition to help reduce feelings of forgetfulness or mental blocks
Antidepressants are prescription medications used to treat depression. There are currently several categories of antidepressants, including serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). Some research suggests that SNRIs are more effective than SSRIs for combating brain fog, but it’s best to consult your doctor to find the proper medication for your needs.
How Charlie Health can help with brain fog and depression
Brain fog and other symptoms of depression can be debilitating without treatment and support. Charlie Health offers high-quality mental healthcare for adolescents, young adults, and their family members. With our innovative online therapy service, individuals with depression and their family members can experience the benefits of in-person therapy from the comfort of their homes.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, our compassionate mental health professionals are here to answer your questions, explore treatment options, and help build strategies to prioritize mental health. Get in touch today.