Tips and tricks to cope with brain fog
Many of us experience “chemo brain” or “brain fog” as a side effect of treatment. Not just caused by chemo, many ladies report that this condition also results from surgery, radiation, and hormone treatment. It is insidious. Some of the signs of brain fog that I have experienced:
- Forgetting words in the middle of sentences
- Not remembering names of common objects or places
- Not being able to remember recent events or actions (ie, what I had for lunch yesterday)
- Inability to focus on a task
- Trouble retaining information read in a book or online
- Missing deadlines or forgetting items on a to do list
I am not going to lie. Two and a half years after completing treatment, my brain fog is not much improved. However, I have learned some coping mechanisms that are helping me to cope with the effects. I find that as soon as I fall off the wagon with any of these, my brain fog is aggravated; once I fall back in line, I feel more in control and the symptoms decrease.
Here are some tricks that have worked for me:
1. Write, write, write. I keep a carefully constructed network of notebooks around me at all times. I have books for home and work. I make notes about everything. I find this helps in two ways. The act of writing helps instill the information in my head, and reviewing my notes periodically helps remind me of items of importance. I also keep a written journal where I write about various topics. It may be what is on my mind that day, or I may use a writing prompt from another source. The more that I write, the more that I create order out of chaos.
Check out Pinterest for ideas on keeping a journal to keep your life in order. You can start by checking out my board:
2. Keep a planner by your side at all times. I personally prefer a written calendar planner. Again, the act of writing in appointments, tasks, and items I want to remember somehow makes them stick more in my head. For the last two years, I have used what I would term a “life planner”. This is not just a calendar, but a place to set goals, journal, and really think about how I want my future to look. It gives me the chance to think and write regularly, and keeps the tornado in my head under control.
There are numerous such products on the market, all of which have good features. The important thing is to find one that makes sense to you.
You can also keep it completely simple and create a bullet journal. This is basically taking a blank notebook, and creating the same journal that you might buy. This takes considerably more work and might be overwhelming at first. There are tons of examples and tutorials on Pinterest, just search for “bullet journals”.
You can start by checking out my planner board on Pinterest!
Shelley’s Planner Board
My goal is to switch to a bullet journal next year, wish me luck!
3. Work on puzzles and brain teasers. I personally like sudoku, and work the puzzles regularly. I think word searches, jigsaw puzzles, and other types of memory and thinking games would help as well. I find that my mind is always a whirlwind and the act of completing a puzzle helps me to feel that everything is organized and in its proper place. It also stimulates my memory functions.
A dear friend gives me the “sudoku a day” calendar, so that I always have a puzzle to do. You can also find books with brain games, puzzles, and other thought-provoking questions on Amazon, and at retailers like Costco or Walmart. Also try a search on Google. There are tons of websites where you can find quick puzzles or brainteasers for free.
4. Start a meditation practice. If you are like me, your mind is a jumble of thoughts and pieces of information. It gets overwhelming to the point of stress. Meditation helps me to make sense of the chaos. It is not so much about emptying your mind, as it is about stepping back and observing what is flowing through your brain and not letting it control you. You figure out what to let go of, and what to file away. Done daily, meditation helps me to stay calm and maintain control of my thoughts.
**Make your meditation even more powerful by journaling immediately afterwards. You do not need a topic, just unload whatever is on your mind.
You can also download lots of meditation apps for your phone. Many give you the first few sessions for free, so you can try them out and see if they help you before you commit to a subscription. This link has some good reviews. I have used the Headspace app and found it helpful. I am going to try out the Calm app next, so I will update when I have more information!
5. Read. I know it is hard. I am normally a voracious reader, but I have not progressed past the first two chapters in any book for over two years. I started by reading shorter pieces – short stories, articles on the internet, anything that I could finish quickly and not be frustrated by. Reading something you have read and enjoyed before is also helpful since you are familiar with the story. I am finally reading full books again. I still have trouble following stories at times, and I have to concentrate far more than I used to, but I can at least enjoy sitting down with my book again. And it is still good practice in the long run.
6. Study a foreign language. This gets more and more difficult with age, and is hampered by the brain fog, but I feel that it is helping to stimulate my brain. I personally am working on Spanish, and it is slowing getting a little easier. There are tons of apps to work on vocabulary, and I am trying to read some really elementary books (think of the primers you read in elementary school). Just dedicating 10 minutes a day makes a difference and may assist in your memory function.
This is the first reader I used. While the first part is a little too high school-ish, it is good for vocabulary. And the sections on Mexico history and the short story are actually interesting.
There are many other readers as well, in a multitude of languages. If you use a Kindle, there are many that are free. Just do a search on Amazon for “Spanish reader”, or whichever language you would like to study.
Again, there are great apps out there for your phone or tablet that make it easy and fun to work on vocabulary and grammar. I have used Duolingo, and like it. If you can find a friend to work on it too, you can compete with them to get the most points. Competition is inspiring! I am going to try Babbel next.
7. Hang reminders everywhere. Leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs if necessary to find your way through each day. I have a list that is taped to the inside of the door to the garage to remind me of everything I should have in hand before I leave for work (coffee, laptop, morning meds, lunch, etc). And we put up a whiteboard for unusual things I want a reminder about that are less frequent. This has helped a lot to keep me from making my 45-minute commute to work, only to find that my laptop is still sitting at home. It also makes me stop for a moment and get centered before starting my day. If I need to remember to take something home, or go somewhere after work, I tape a post-it to my purse so I will see it before I head out.
Don’t let this make you feel like you are a moron. I am finding that living a more structured life helps to maintain my sense of calm, and keeps me from making errors. I’m no moron.
8. Set alarms on your phone. This is useful for many reminders. It can be used for taking medications, appointments, and meetups. But it can also be beneficial for simple things like remembering to turn off the crock pot when you get home from work. I set them before leaving to go home if I need to do something as soon as I get there. It is not so much that it is time-sensitive, but more that I need something to jog my memory. I will forget something my husband has asked me to do five seconds after we discuss it. The alarm sparks my memory so I don’t forget, and that saves many a fight.
So that is it! My eight steps to bring order out my mind’s chaos.