We all feel a little foggy from time to time, but if you’re finding it increasingly difficult to concentrate or stay focused at work or at home, stress is the likely culprit.
To be clear, not all stress is bad. The pressure of a deadline or a desire to perform well can spur us to work hard to complete a task. But research has demonstrated chronic stress—the kind that seems to linger and keep us suspended in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight—can take a toll on mental health. Chronic stress can kill brain cells and reduce the volume of gray matter, impairing the memory and our ability to stay focused, solve problems and make decisions.
We asked wellness experts to share their top tips for cultivating concentration.
Stay Focused With Breathwork
Yoga—particularly pranayama or breath practices—encourages mental focus and can bring our minds back to the present moment, says Christa Kuberry, PhD, Vice President of Standards for Yoga Alliance.
“Our brain uses our posture, our breath, and our muscle tenseness to understand our emotional state,” she explains. “Breath is the only language our nervous system speaks, so the easiest way for us to come into our bodies is to take a deep breath.” Intentional deep breathing flips a switch, so to speak, telling the brain to pause and regroup, and allowing the parasympathetic nervous system to take control and calm us down. Less stress = more attention.
Try these pranayama techniques:
Balloon breath: Pause throughout the day to practice breathing more deeply. “Put your hands on your low belly and picture your belly filling up like a balloon as you inhale and emptying that balloon as you exhale,” Kuberry says. “It’s simple but also effective.”
Box breath: Box breathing is a favored practice of yogis and military personnel alike, Kuberry says. It’s a four-four-four-four breath (like the four sides of a box): Inhale for four seconds, pause and hold the breath for four seconds, exhale for four seconds, and pause again for four seconds, holding the breath out. Start with three rounds of this breath, working up to 10 rounds.
Cloud breath: Cloud breath is a visualization exercise to help dispel negative thoughts or emotions that leave you feeling scattered. Imagine the negative thought or feeling as a dark cloud that you exhale out of your body and up to the sky. As you inhale, imagine breathing in a bright, white cloud into the body. Repeat for 10 cycles.
Stay Focused Using Mindfulness Techniques
Stephanie Grace, owner of Metta Relaxation Co. in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, has spent years studying reflexology, meditation, and integrative nutrition to help people find their calm. Here’s what she recommends:
Journal before bed: When her clients have trouble sleeping, it’s often because their minds race and just can’t shut down at night, Grace says. She calls this “monkey mind” and recommends keeping a journal on your bedside table and doing a pre-bed brain dump by writing down thoughts, feelings, worries, and upcoming tasks. “Write all of it down and be done with it,” she says. “It will be there for you in the morning.” Any notebook will do, but you may be more likely to stick with the process if you invest in a gorgeous journal and some special pens.
Move mindfully: Even tiny, everyday moments of mindful attention can help us feel more clear and focused, Grace says. When walking, notice how each foot lifts and falls, and how it feels against the stairs, the sidewalk, the carpet. When washing dishes, pay attention to the sound and temperature of the water, the smell of the soap, and the way each dish feels in you hand. Sit outdoors for 5 minutes in silent stillness. Notice how the air smells and feels on your skin, how the chair or ground feels against your body, and what sounds you hear.
Avoid added sugar: Pay attention to how much sugar you consume. Processed foods are often high in added sugars, which can make brain fog worse by spiking blood sugar levels, then sending them crashing. High sugar consumption may also lead to temporary (but reversible) inflammation in the brain. Other research has found high sugar consumption was associated with impaired cognitive function, memory, and mood. Start with a no-sugar breakfast to set the tone for the day.
Stay Focused With Herbs
Mimi Hernadez, a registered herbalist and executive director of the American Herbalists Guild, says two common herbs can serve as potent remedies for brain fog.
Rosemary: When you need immediate focus to complete a task, Hernandez recommends rosemary. For an early morning pick-me-up, add a few drops of rosemary essential oil (we love Cliganic rosemary oil) to a bath or shower or wash with rosemary-scented shampoo or soap. Add a few drops of rosemary essential oil to a diffuser while you’re working. Drink it in a tea: Steep 1–2 teaspoons of dried rosemary leaves in hot water for about 20 minutes.
Lemon balm: Lemon balm is another one of Hernandez’s favorite herbs for fighting fogginess. For everyday support, she recommends drinking a daily tonic of 1–2 teaspoons of dried lemon balm infused in hot water for 15–20 minutes. (Fresh lemon balm can be used, too, though you’ll need to use twice as much.) Hernandez likes to add a big handful of fresh lemon balm to a quart of water to steep overnight, then drink it throughout the day.