I was deeply concerned. I was in my early 40s, leading a global engineering organization. I was proud of the combination of talent, skill, and effort that had propelled me to this leadership level. Confident in my abilities, I faced an emerging challenge I had never encountered before.
My brain wasn’t working.
For the first time in my career, I truly understood the experience of “brain fog.” Sometimes, I just felt fuzzy. There were times I struggled to recall a word. At times I had difficulty focusing. My memory, which had served me so well throughout my career, was beginning to fail me. At this point, I began to be deliberate about writing things down to ensure I never missed a commitment.
I thought, “This is what I’d expect to happen in my 70s or 80s, but not my 40s.” I still found myself performing at a reasonably high level, but I knew it was not the level I was capable of. If my mental decline had already begun, how much longer would I be able to succeed in this role?
As I began to obsess about my mental challenges, I started paying closer attention to my colleagues. It dawned on me that I was not alone. Peers even younger than me were calling people by the wrong name, losing their train of thought, and clearly struggling with memory. I could see concern behind their eyes as well.
Perhaps this story resonates with you. Maybe you have had similar experiences. If so, take a breath and read on. This story has a happy ending.
Your Pre-Frontal Cortex
Perhaps you have heard of the Pre-Frontal Cortex (PFC). This area of the brain is responsible for executive function. Many of the impairments I was experiencing could be attributed to challenges with my PFC. I’ll defer again to my teacher Ann Betz for a more detailed explanation of the PFC.
Our PFC relies on neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine to regulate its function. Betz writes that our PFC is at its best when these neurotransmitters are balanced. She refers to this as “The Goldilocks of the Brain.” I prefer Aristotle’s Golden Mean – everything in moderation. Too little or too much is a vice, whereas the golden mean, just the right amount, is a virtue.
When we have too much stress or are overstimulated, we have too many of these neurotransmitters in our system. This can cause brain fog, issues with memory, and a whole host of other problems. Surprisingly, we have the same symptoms when we have too little stress or stimulation. A deficit of these neurotransmitters can produce the same symptoms.
As I worked with my doctor, I didn’t understand the science behind this, but he did help me understand the impact. Thankfully, I was not experiencing the early onset of Alzheimer’s. I was working at a pace I could not sustain. Chronically stressed and stimulated, my body was flooded with neurotransmitters, and my PFC was suffering.
It was easy to see how the same was true for my colleagues. We were working in a culture that valued work ethic tremendously. Leaders boasted about how they could survive on very little sleep. We enjoyed what we were doing and had plenty of fun along the way, but we were burning the candle at both ends.
Clearing the Fog
If you have never experienced the brain fog I described, be grateful. Take care of yourself. Trust me. You don’t want to live that way.
If you have, I offer some practical tips to help you achieve the golden mean with just the right amount of stress and stimulation to have your PFC operating at peak capacity.
- Prioritize Sleep. If you sleep less than 7 hours a night, you almost certainly need more. As Matthew Walker notes in his must-read Why We Sleep, while there are humans with a genetic variation that enables them to perform effectively with less, you are more likely to be struck by lightning sometime in your lifetime than you are to have that gene. Chronic sleep deprivation was clearly a contributing factor for me and my colleagues.
- Move. Exercise is an essential strategy regardless of whether you are understimulated or overstimulated. When understimulated, it can help get the neurotransmitters flowing. If you are stressed, it can help you burn off some of the excess.
- Meditate Daily. If you are stressed, even one minute of breathwork can help bring your PFC back into balance. Building an ongoing practice helps you build resilience, enabling you to return to center more quickly.
- Practice Shutdown Complete. I learned this technique from Brian Johnson and the Heroic app. Pick a time of day when you will be done working. For me, it’s 6 PM. At that time, I practice Shutdown Complete. I close the computer, leave the office, and stop working for the evening.
- Practice Digital Sunset. An hour before bed put away all digital devices. Smartphones, tablets, computers, TVs, anything with an on/off switch. Give your brain a break from technology and screens so you can wind down before bed and have a good night’s sleep.
These are some of my favorite techniques to regulate my PFC and keep my body in the sweet spot that has it operating at its best.
Putting It Into Practice
Whether you are experiencing brain fog or not, I encourage you to pay attention to your mental state and increase your awareness of when you are overstimulated, when you are understimulated, and when your levels feel just right. Experiment with the abovementioned techniques to find the ones that help you regulate your system to support brain health.
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