Sunday, February 9, 2014

Energy Economy - 10 Was to COPE with Cognitive Dysfunction (Brain Fog, Fibro Fog)

Brain Fog (Cognitive Dysfunction) and Chronic Illness

One of the most difficult and devastating things I have had to deal with in this last year is a worsening of my brain fog/cognitive dysfunction.  I thought, ‘so my body doesn’t work, at least I can catch up on some reading and studying’.  But no.  To my horror, I found that even reading caused extreme exhaustion, pain, and debilitation.  This realization was a very low point for me.
Cognitive dysfunction (or brain fog) has many causes.  It can be a symptom in illnesses like depression, lupus, Celiac disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome/myalgic encephalomyelitis, fibromyalgia, sjogren’s syndrome, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer, MCS (multiple chemical sensitivity), and many more.  It is also sometimes a symptom in ADHD and peri-menopause.  And this barely scratches the surface.

At its most severe it can be completely incapacitating.  But, there are also less severe forms when we can still function.    For some details on symptoms check out this Cognitive Dysfunction post by the National MS Society. 

Honestly, this can be an extremely devastating thing.  Losing the proper function of our brains can be even worse than losing the proper function of our bodies.  (See the post It’s OK to Grieve YourLosses.)  However, we are focusing on the practical side, not the emotional side today.

As I see it, dealing with these issues really falls into two categories:  1. Coping, and 2. Combating.  Today we will be discussing how to cope.  

Coping means to accept that it is a problem and do what you can to live within its limits.  Cope can literally mean to come into contact with, to meet.  So to cope is to go out and meet the challenge as best we can. 

Here are some ways to meet this challenge / e.g. cope.

1.      Write EVERYTHING down.  And in the same spot if you can.  We may have trouble remembering things like appointments, intentions, what we wanted to do today, what we want to say to someone, passwords, our names, other people’s names, ideas, how to cook, what kinds of food we like, basic math, new things we have learned, and so much more.  So we need ways to meet this challenge.  If we can write everything down in the same spot, that spot serves as our replacement memory.  A memory we can actually access.

My brother's wall of whiteboard.
Use a smart phone, a notebook, a large whiteboard taking up an entire wall (like my brother's in the picture), a refrigerator, a calendar, or tons of sticky notes all over the house or car. Or, you can have a place with everyday notes and then you might have a binder with lists that you go back to over and over (like food you can make, how to be a good friend, things you like and don’t like, regular bills and their due dates, etc…) Whatever method you choose, just make sure you find a system that works for you or it does you no good. 

2.      Use visual cues.  If you need to mail something, set it out by your purse or somewhere else you can see it.  If you are leaving the house tomorrow and need to take some things with you, set them by your purse or in front of the door.  If you need to pay bills – put them in a highly visible spot.  Set your clothes out the night before.  Keep your jewelry and grooming products out where you can see them.  Etc…

3.      Set alarms.  I set alarms to remind me to turn on the oven, to turn off the oven, and to turn off my computer and go to bed.  I set alarms to remind me to get a bath, or to get ready to go out.  I set alarms to remind me to stop what I am doing and rest for 20 minutes.  Alarms can be very handy tools.

4.      Take notes.  Write down directions.  If someone is telling you what or how to do something have them write it down, or take notes yourself.  Or, if you are having a hard time concentrating on a talk or conversation, take notes.  It helps your brain focus the best it can. 

5.      Recognize that today is Brain Fog day.  Don’t try to fight it, fighting it makes it worse.  Relax into it.  Let yourself rest extra today in hopes that tomorrow will be better.  Don’t tell yourself mean things.  Work within your limits and don’t get mad at yourself.  Be patient.  Keep things simple.  Understand your personal signals and stop when you need to stop.  If you simply can't concentrate, don't try to force yourself.

6.      Use your good days wisely.  Love your good days when you have them.  Get stuff done.  Study, read, delve deep.  But be as reasonable as you can.  Don’t push too hard or you will quickly land right back where you were – with no memory, no ability to concentrate, and in pain. 

7.      Ask people to slow down or repeat.  It’s hard to follow anything at all but if a person is talking very fast or moving too quickly it can be impossible to catch what they are talking about.

8.      Cut down on noise and light.  Keep things quiet, or at least have rest periods when you give all your senses a break.  This can help your energy to renew and your pain to ebb a little.  I have found this suggestion extremely beneficial.

9.      Create routines/habits that do the work for your brain.  I just read a fascinating book about how habits work (The power of habit.  Why we do what we do.)  It brings out that habits require almost no conscious thought.  The habit is so ingrained in a certain part of our brain that it has become like a reflex.  We can even lose our memory and still do our habit.

 So, create habits that will help you through your brain fog – times when you can’t think.  Really utilize this point in every way possible, both large and small.  Creating routines that do the work for you can be invaluable.

10. Focus on one task at a time.  Do not multi-task if you can help it.  Focus on and accomplish one task at a time.  When you reach a stopping point or a time limit, put that task away, make a note of where you stopped and what you want to do with it next time, and then focus on the next task (the next task may be anything – resting, sleeping, making dinner, exercising, work, etc…).

I use many of these methods.  Others on this list I am hoping to incorporate more fully.  But there are a few more really good suggestions in these blogs:

Remember the beginning of this post?  Dealing with cognitive dysfunction involves two things – Coping and Combatting.  Today we discussed Coping.  Stay tuned for an upcoming Energy Economy post on how to Combat brain fog.

And now it’s your turn.  What do you do to help with brain fog?  What kind of lists do you keep?  What kind of habits have you created or do you want to create to help with this?  What are your thoughts on this subject?

More Energy Economy posts:


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  2. I have come up with lists of references that I need for everyday things at work-- where I read this or that-- so that I can go to the right book or magazine with the page and point I need listed. I ALWAYS write the things I think I will need later. Sometimes making a note helps me remember, but invariably I eventually need the reminder-- especially if the next time I need to remember is months or years later. I also find it helps me relax. When I am not feeling pressured, I find that my mind works better. I have vitamins that help me but a timer is usually needed to get the pills taken.

    1. Hi Emily! Thanks for the practical application!