Lack of mental clarity, difficulty concentrating, and memory challenges. Do any of these sound familiar? These are the symptoms of chemo brain, also known as brain fog. The term 'chemo brain' is misleading, as it can occur in the absence of chemotherapy treatment. While chemotherapy treatments can certainly cause side effects that result in cognitive challenges, chemotherapy is not the sole cause of some of these cognitive dysfunctions.
The pandemic has brought an increase in such difficulties for many, whether they have a cancer diagnosis or not. Why is this happening? According to an article put out by UCHealth, our brains are having trouble shutting off. Whether it's constant worry about COVID, family, work, health, or kids, our brains have been unable to adequately rest and reset. Ultimately, our minds are working overtime and our cognitive abilities are paying the price. On the other end of the spectrum, the pandemic has also resulted in a loss of routine, fewer social interactions, and an increase in isolation, which for many can cause fuzziness, confusion, and lack of mental clarity, almost as if our brains have gone into idle mode.
Recently, researchers have paid closer attention to such disruptions among cancer patients and survivors. When dealing with high levels of stress and anxiety brought about by the news or experience of a cancer diagnosis, many see disruptions to their thinking, focus, and ability to think clearly about their lives and circumstances. The emotional aspects, coupled with some of the physical responses to cancer such as fatigue and pain, can cause mental struggles.
What are some best practices for addressing these challenges? While Coping Magazine is quick to point out that there is no sure treatment or standard of care to prevent or treat chemo brain, there are some things that you can do to alleviate some of the struggles:
Exercise. We all know that exercise has a multitude of benefits. Some of those benefits that can address the challenges of brain fog include reducing fatigue, improving sleep, increasing endorphins and even increasing products in the blood that can aid in cognitive functioning. Unsure of where to start? Some easy ways to fit in exercise at work can include simple acts like setting a timer to stand up from your computer every hour or every other hour. A walk to the kitchen for water or doing a quick stretch at your desk regularly are also small ways to get your heart pumping. Look at our blog for exercise routines that work for any fitness level.
Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can improve sleep and reduce stress by helping you to be more present and centered. It can help eliminate some of the external noise that can often cause distraction and stress. Incorporating short breaks throughout the day, practicing breathing exercises, regularly taking your lunch break, or simply walking away from a computer for a few minutes are all ways to practice mindfulness in the workplace. Take a look at our blog on mindfulness for more ideas on how to incorporate these actions into your workday.
Nutrition. Diet is an extremely important aspect of physical health, but there are many signs that it can improve mental health as well. Having a well-balanced diet filled with nutritious foods can improve mood, sleep and cognitive functioning. The workday can sometimes throw a wrench in best laid plans for eating well, so watch our webinar on Strategies for Eating Well on the Job to learn tips and tricks for making sure your nutrition stays on track at work.
Sleep. One thing all suggestions here have in common is improving sleep. Sleep is integral to brain function and emotional regulation. Much like our bodies need rest, our brains needs rest as well. Taking steps to improve sleep by getting more, and better sleep, can drastically improve brain functioning.
So while there is no 'cure' so to speak, taking actions that can improve cognitive functioning will help to alleviate some of the challenges associated with chemo brain/brain fog.
If you're interested in learning about strategies for controlling the symptoms of chemo brain at work, be sure to check out our article on Working with Chemo Brain. We also have a one-sheet available for order or download on Ways to Counteract 'Chemo Brain' at Work.
As always, feel free to reach out to Cancer and Careers if you'd like to talk through how to address challenges brought about by cancer in the workplace. You can email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be happy to provide you resources and guidance!