If so, you’re not alone in your struggles. January is notorious for its ability to drain our mental faculties. So, what causes this seasonal grogginess – and how can we get our mental muscle back?
What triggers seasonal brain fog?
The short answer is that, although psychologists recognise brain fog as a real phenomenon, the exact causes are still unclear. However, stress, seasonal weather, poor sleeping habits and dietary habits may all play a part.
After the excitement (and excesses) of Christmas and New Year, settling back into work can be a tricky business. It doesn’t help that January is a long often financially challenging month, with Christmas spending biting a hole in our bank balances and a long wait before pay day. Research has shown that stress levels can rise by up to a third after the festive period , with work worries and relationship issues both playing a part – and stress, accompanied by trouble sleeping, may be a major factor in triggering brain fog.
Needless to say, the glacial weather doesn’t help. We start the new year with several months of winter still ahead of us, and we get a paltry one hour 21 minutes on average of sunshine per day over January.
Some theories also place the blame for our mental fogginess on excesses of refined carbohydrates and alcohol, as well as on diets and “detoxing” – festive and post-festive elements many of us will be familiar with.
Whatever the exact causes of brain fog, there are ways to address it and get your memory muscles back into shape.
How to get your brain to bounce back
You may want to take a two-pronged approach to clearing your mental grogginess, first addressing external issues, and then enjoying some fun games and exercises to flex your memory muscles and get your brain back into shape.
Tackle your external issues
The first thing to do is to address any diet or sleeping issues you might be experiencing. Your needs will be individual, but as a general rule, eating a balanced diet including plenty of fruits, vegetables and protein is crucial – avoiding excessive sugar and refined carbohydrates. It’s important to drink enough water too (but not too much ), and some gentle exercise such as walking or swimming could improve your wellbeing immensely.
If the weather’s giving you the winter blues, you might want to try lifting your mood by getting outdoors while it’s light – for example, lunchtime walks to work up an appetite and maximise sunlight exposure.
Try to get to sleep at a regular time each night, and stop using any “blue light” devices such as smartphones and tablets long before bedtime. If your worries are keeping you awake in the wee hours, you might want to try writing down plans for how to tackle issues before you hit the sack. If these concerns are financial, consider talking to an advisor, who may be able to allay your concerns or suggest strategies to get your bank balance looking more healthy. Organisations such as the money advice service are a useful starting point.
Flex your mental muscles
Next, it’s time to tax those grey cells and get your memory back to its fully functioning glory. There are a number of ways you can do this, and the great news is that it should be enjoyable too.
Brain training apps have been booming in popularity over the past couple of years, and although the results are still being assessed, they may improve your brain processing speed and aspects of memory. The downside is that you need to pay out for many of them.
There are cheaper options, however: some research suggests that playing video games daily (particularly 3D ones) can also help improve cognitive function , while more ancient techniques such as yoga and mindfulness may boost your memory.
If you’re too short of time to fit in a yoga session, there are still some simple things to try at home or on the way to work. You can easily do a mental workout with simple memory games (such as the tray game), problem-solving puzzles such as Sudoku or cryptic crosswords, games of mental agility such as chess (which is believed to promote brain growth and raise your IQ) or games that challenge your memory under time-pressure situations, including card games such as poker. The key is to keep upping the challenge to ensure your brain keeps working to its maximum ability.
Finding your place in an online playroom may be particularly beneficial – research suggests that a 10-minute session of social interaction can increase your brain’s processing speed and working memory. Combine that with the mental challenges of gaming, and you have a fun recipe for getting your memory fighting fit.