a man has difficulty thinking clearly shown by his head obscured by a cloud

Why We Have Difficulty Thinking Clearly When We Feel Low or Worried

Have you ever experienced the frustration of trying to think clearly, only to find your mind clouded and your thoughts scattered?


Many people who struggle with worry, stress, or anxious or depressed feelings, share this experience, known as “brain fog” or “cog fog.” It can be confusing and distressing – sometimes it even feels like we can’t recognise ourselves. But there are ways of managing, both in the short term and the long term. With time, certain practices, and therapy, we can think more clearly again as we feel better, too.


What it feels like to have trouble thinking clearly


Difficulty thinking clearly can be an overwhelming sensation. And it can manifest in different ways for different people. Some individuals describe it as having a hard time concentrating and experiencing a mental fog. Others describe feeling like they can’t get their thoughts together – their mind feels disorganised or messy. Still others experience a kind of ‘brain freeze’ where they’re not able to think temporarily, or experience a blankness in their mind. 


You may find yourself unable to process information, make decisions, or articulate your ideas effectively. These cognitive challenges can be distressing, leading to more stress, heightened anxiety and frustration, low self-esteem, and feelings of panic or worthlessness.


How common is it to be unable to think clearly?


Difficulty thinking clearly is frequently associated with both depression and anxiety. However, it is important to note that the experiences may differ between the two conditions. When we struggle with low feelings, disinterest, demotivation, and isolation, this symptom often surfaces as a persistent mental fog. 

When we feel anxious, worried, or as if our mind is on a treadmill, we are more likely to experience sudden difficulty thinking. Although these experiences are distinct, it is not uncommon for people to experience both – sometimes simultaneously. This can make for an intense experience that feels like you can’t think at all, which can cause even more negative feelings and distress.


Understanding how emotional health affects brain function


To understand why we might be having a hard time thinking when we feel low, sad, disinterested, anxious, or stressed, we must first learn a bit about the brain’s structures and functions. 

Our cognitive abilities, including thinking, reasoning, and considering, are governed by a region called the prefrontal cortex (PFC). The PFC is responsible for these abilities – known as executive functions. Executive functions also include decision-making, attention regulation, and working memory.

Anxiousness, worry, stress, and depressed feelings can profoundly affect the PFC, disrupting its optimal functioning. When we experience anxious feelings and worry, the brain’s stress response is heightened, triggering the release of stress hormones that can impair cognitive processes. This can result in difficulties concentrating, memory lapses, and an inability to think clearly when stressed.

When we experience depressed or negative feelings, on the other hand, activity reduces in the PFC. This diminished brain activity can manifest as a mental fog, making it challenging to process information and think coherently. Negative thoughts and a lack of motivation further exacerbate this cognitive decline.


What to do when you can’t think clearly


When we feel we can’t think properly, it’s essential to develop strategies to cope with and minimise brain fog’s impact on our daily lives. Here are some actions that can help us manage better:

  • Establish a routine: Structure your day with a consistent schedule, allocating specific times for work, rest, and self-care. Having a routine can provide a sense of stability and reduce cognitive overload.
  • Break tasks into smaller steps: Overwhelming tasks can contribute to mental clutter. Break them down into manageable chunks to reduce cognitive strain and increase productivity.
  • Practice mindfulness and relaxation techniques: Engaging in mindfulness exercises, deep breathing, meditation, or yoga to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. These practices can help clear the mind and enhance cognitive clarity.
  • Prioritise self-care: Nurturing your mental and physical well-being is vital. Getting enough sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and allocating time for activities you enjoy all support a healthier, clearer brain.
  • Seek support: Share your struggles with trusted friends, colleagues, or family members. Connecting with others who understand can provide emotional support and valuable insights.


How therapy can help you think clearly again


While the above coping strategies can be immensely beneficial, it is crucial to address the root causes of difficulty thinking clearly.

Seeking therapy, such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) or mindfulness-based therapies, can help manage our worries, stress, and anxiousness, our low, sad, and demotivated feelings. Therapy provides a safe space to explore the underlying causes of difficulty thinking clearly.

Vidula V Sawant (M.A., M.Phil., CRR No. A80980) is a clinical psychologist with  4+ years of experience and a passion for understanding the complexities of our minds and behaviors.

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