this is the curse of the overachiever: between acing exams, landing a dream job, maintaining a social life, staying in shape and grooming your Instagram feed, it can often feel as though being stressed is your steady state. Your to-do lists grow, while days seem shorter. And no matter how much you excel at multitasking, the tension feels like it’s building. That’s because it is, according to a recent survey conducted by the Psychological Association. Millennials are more burnt out than ever before – and it may have something to do with the recent uptick in a condition some researchers are calling ‘ brain fog’.
Shorthand for mental cloudiness, brain fog has long been associated with conditions like fibromyalgia and Alzheimer’s, but now teens and 20-somethings are reporting feelings of mental confusion and sluggishness similar to those more commonly observed in older generations. “It’s common, but definitely not normal,” notes Dr Robert Lahita, a professor of medicine. So what’s the catalyst?
A host of triggers all point to increased pressures specific to this generation, like the climbing cost of higher education, a changing job market in which it isn’t as simple as graduating and getting a job, and a fraught political climate, says Dr Mike Dow, a psychotherapist and the author of Heal Your Drained Brain ( Hay House; R427). Another culprit? Social media, which has led to an inflated sense of perfectionism among millennials. While it may not be conscious, seeing celebrities’, influencers’ – even certain friends’ – lives on Instagram may have recalibrated the goals you’ve set for yourself. “Perfection is a high bar. No one can achieve that daily,” adds Dr Dow.
If it feels like you’re in a game of pinball all day, you’re not imagining things. “While focusing on an important task, our brains can’t filter out extraneous stimuli, which inhibits concentration,” Dr Dow explains. Just as your iphone tends to slow down if you have too many apps open, our brains can’t fully focus if there are too many things that require our attention at once.
Also, taking on more responsibilities typically leads to an impossible schedule. Many are chugging caffeinated drinks –or worse, misusing friends’ prescription stimulants to stay up crazy late, then waking up at the crack of dawn to get more done. This attempt at hyperproductivity ends up backfiring. “This interferes with your body’s natural sleep cycle,” says Dr Dow. “It can give you mental jet lag, like flying from Joburg to Cairo daily.” Keeping a regular bedtime can curb brain fog and actually make your waking hours more effective.
Certain nutritional habits can make you feel fuzzy, too. Processed food and dehydration play a role, so drink plenty of water, and eat fruits and veggies. Most important, keep anxiety in check by unplugging from your phone for an hour each day – stress buildup can result in total confusion and impede performance. Here’s how it works: when we’re stressed out, our brains experience an upsurge in cortisol (the stress hormone) and a depletion of feel-good chemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, leaving us unmotivated to decipher dizzying thoughts. You can avoid this by prioritising time to exercise and meditate. Once you slow down and take a step back, you might just start feeling sharper, even smarter.
“If everything you eat comes in a cardboard box or a crinkly bag, you have a problem.” – Amanda Rausch