Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 8/6/2022
Whether it’s feeling distracted, thinking slowly or generally feeling spaced out, you may know the symptoms of brain fog already. But what about brain fog depression?
Mental health disorders have always made for great metaphors, and whether it’s portrayed as a little rain cloud, thunderstorms or a smoky haze, the weather has always been a great way to depict mental health because our brains are much like the weather of our world: unpredictable at times, often experiencing sudden changes and sometimes subject to floods (of emotions — okay, maybe that’s a stretch, but bear with us).
Whether your cognitive dysfunction comes from a mood disorder, drug (or other chemical) or another source altogether, it’s important to understand what brain fog means for you.
Is brain fog dangerous? Is it permanent? Can you fix it when it crops up? What about when it’s related to a depressive disorder?
We can help you understand brain fog as it's related to depression, but to do so we have to start with a seemingly obvious question: what is brain fog?
Brain fog, as it is most commonly described, is a simple catch-all term for cognitive difficulties brought on by some internal or external factor like chronic stress.
Cognitive tasks and memory tasks become difficult tasks because of brain fog. It’s the “not thinking clearly” feeling you get when you’re just coming out of sleep, feeling exhausted or ill or are experiencing the side effects of some medications.
How it relates to depression is pretty simple to understand: it’s a symptom that can sometimes appear in people dealing with depressive disorders and other mental disorders.
While it’s not well defined (or described in the exact term “brain fog,” in many cases), cognitive issues related to depression are quite common, especially when you consider how loose the definition can be.
Brain fog isn’t a well-defined term in the world of brain health, in part because it’s mostly a patient-generated piece of feedback at the moment. Recent studies are scant.
Arguably, the best information we have on brain fog comes from a 2019 review of patient perspectives of cognitive symptoms in depression.
According to the review, patients often offered words like “brain fog” and “memory” in their descriptions of the cognitive depressive symptoms, explaining that it was akin to mental paralysis.
Why you get brain fog when depressed is a little complicated, but essentially, depression and the related neurotransmitter and chemical imbalances in your mind can make normal processes work poorly or on a delay.
It’s common to hear people with depression talk about memory loss and cognitive difficulties. In fact, there’s some evidence that chronic depression can increase your risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological issues down the road.
Some experts believe that the causes of cognitive impairment can also include something called neuroinflammation, which can be caused by factors like poor sleep, drug use, medications, poor nutrition and others.
But the reality is that brain fog caused by depression is a symptom of depression, sort of like a subcategory of the problems that depression can cause people.
The symptoms of brain fog are somewhat difficult to define.
For the most part, brain fog symptoms are actually described as the results of the brain fog itself: slowed cognition, problems concentrating and more.
We’ve already mentioned the cognitive function problems, memory issues and mental fatigue. People who struggle with brain fog may have trouble making decisions, reduced executive function, foggy mental clarity, trouble focusing or they may feel mental paralysis.
Worst of all, they may be hindered in their efforts to treat their depression — a problem that can basically create an infinite loop of worsening mental health conditions.
Because brain fog is one of the symptoms of depression, it’s important to treat the disorder causing those cognitive issues first and foremost.
Luckily, depression responds well to a variety of treatments, including medication, therapy and lifestyle changes.
One of the most effective forms of therapy for treating depression is actually cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): a system in which the depressed person learns to recognize and alter the negative thought patterns associated with depression itself.
CBT can help you with brain fog by giving you strategies to safely find your way back to clearer skies.
Medication might also help with brain fog, and it can definitely help with depression. Modern medications like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are antidepressant drugs designed to help your brain balance neurotransmitters like serotonin.
They cross the blood-brain barrier and manage your brain’s supply of serotonin so that you don’t run empty (and bottom out as a result).
How you treat depression may also include lifestyle changes.
Better diet, more aerobic exercise and normal sleep patterns can be beneficial in reducing the symptoms of depression overall.
Brain fog can be a short-term medical condition, and it can easily be a harmless event. But if you’re seeing a pattern of days where it feels like you're in the fog, maybe it’s time to get your head out of the clouds.
When something starts to affect your daily life and brain function, your performance at work, and your ability to enjoy yourself, it’s time to deal with it — and to do that you need some support.
A healthcare professional or mental health professional can offer you a lot in the way of support and guidance, and they can help you accomplish your treatment goals by tailoring effective treatment options to your unique mind, body and needs.
If you’re ready to get that kind of support, we have resources to offer you. Our online therapy offerings can help you get the emotional support you need, and medication is only a few clicks away. Have more questions? Let’s start there. Check out our online mental health resources for depression symptoms and treatment for depression to learn more about what to expect.