Does Anxiety Cause Brain Fog?

Brain fog, a term often used colloquially, describes a constellation of symptoms primarily affecting cognitive processes. Individuals experiencing brain fog report a range of symptoms, including a lack of mental clarity, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, and a general sense of confusion. While not a medical diagnosis in itself, brain fog is recognized as a significant and distressing symptom, often associated with various medical conditions, chronic stress, and lifestyle factors.

On the other hand, anxiety, a natural human response to stress, can become overwhelming and pervasive, manifesting as an anxiety disorder. Symptoms can be both psychological, such as feelings of apprehension or dread, and physical, like increased heart rate and trembling.

This article aims to delve into the complex interplay between anxiety and brain fog. Despite the prevalence of both conditions, the relationship between them is not entirely understood. Recent scholarly articles have begun to shed light on this connection, suggesting that anxiety, particularly when chronic and severe, may have a direct impact on cognitive functioning, potentially leading to or exacerbating the experience of brain fog.

The Nature of Brain Fog

Brain fog is a term often used to describe a feeling of mental fuzziness or confusion. Although not a medical condition itself, it embodies a constellation of symptoms impacting cognitive abilities. Individuals suffering from brain fog report a range of issues, including difficulties in concentration, memory lapses, lack of mental clarity, and an inability to focus. The nebulous nature of brain fog makes it a challenging symptom to characterize and address.

Research indicates that brain fog can be a significant aftermath of certain medical conditions. For instance, studies on “Long COVID” have identified brain fog as a prevalent symptom, highlighting its impact on cognitive functions such as memory and attention. Patients describe their experiences as having a substantial detrimental effect on daily activities, work performance, and interpersonal relationships, indicating the profound influence of brain fog on the quality of life​​​​.[1]

The manifestation of brain fog can vary widely among individuals, both in terms of symptoms and severity. Some may experience it as a mild, temporary state of confusion or forgetfulness, while others might endure more persistent and debilitating symptoms, affecting their professional performance, social interactions, and overall well-being. The unpredictability and fluctuating nature of brain fog add to the complexity of this symptom, making it a perplexing and often frustrating experience for those affected. Despite its elusive nature, recognizing and validating the experiences of those affected but also paves the way for exploring potential underlying causes, including its relationship with anxiety.

woman with gray hair and glasses thinking and writing on a table.

Understanding Anxiety and Cognitive Function

Anxiety is characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure. While anxiety is a normal response to stress, helping individuals to cope with challenging situations, it can become overwhelming and disproportionate to the actual danger, culminating in an anxiety disorder. Such disorders are among the most common mental health conditions and can profoundly affect a person’s daily functioning and quality of life.[2]

Research delves into the multifaceted effects of anxiety on cognitive functions. For instance, the study from Frontiers in Psychology examining the relationship between anxiety, stress, and working memory performance in a large, non-depressed sample underlines the significant influence anxiety exerts on working memory. This aspect of cognitive function is essential for holding and processing information in the short term, playing a critical role in reasoning, decision-making, and behavior. The study’s findings illuminate how elevated levels of anxiety and stress can adversely affect working memory performance, potentially leading to difficulties in concentration and task management, symptoms often associated with brain fog​​.

The cognitive implications of this are profound and diverse. Anxiety influences a wide spectrum of cognitive functions, including attention, perception, learning, and executive functioning. It’s hypothesized that anxiety, particularly in the form of anxiety disorders, activates a “hot” cognitive system, which is highly responsive to threats. While this heightened sensitivity can be adaptive, allowing for rapid response to potential threats, it can also be maladaptive, leading to persistent worry and impaired cognitive functions​​.[3]

Building on this is a study from Shields et al. (2023), that discusses how anxiety is perceived in patients experiencing it. This shows a significant difference between acute stress and chronic anxiety. Acute stress can improve reactive processing of stimuli and self-control, but that is not the case for chronic anxiety.[4] Furthermore, another study from Vytal et al. (2021) discusses how anxiety can fundamentally alter central sensory pathways, enhancing the sensitivity and detection of environmental changes. This heightened state of alertness, while potentially advantageous in threatening situations with high cognitive load, can lead to an overload of sensory processing in non-threatening contexts.[5]

The alteration in sensory perception and heightened responsiveness can contribute to a state of cognitive overload, where the capacity to process and respond to information efficiently is compromised, echoing the experiences reported by individuals suffering from brain fog​​. This may be why many patients with brain fog seem to be able to function when set to a high-focus task with an immediate deadline, but paradoxically, find everyday life and tasks difficult for them.

Final Thoughts: Does Anxiety Cause Brain Fog?

The intricate relationship between anxiety and brain fog is an area that intertwines cognitive function, emotional health, and overall well-being. Throughout this exploration, the evidence underscores the profound impact chronic anxiety can have on cognitive processes, potentially leading to or intensifying the experience of brain fog. The symptoms of brain fog, including difficulties with memory, concentration, and clarity of thought, mirror the cognitive alterations induced by chronic anxiety, suggesting a notable connection between the two.

Patient experiences and clinical observations further affirm the significant influence of these conditions on daily life, emphasizing the need for a sensitive, comprehensive approach to diagnosis and treatment. As we strive to unravel the complexities of anxiety and brain fog, it’s clear that addressing these conditions requires a multidisciplinary strategy, incorporating medical, psychological, and lifestyle interventions tailored to individual needs.

For individuals experiencing these symptoms, recognizing the potential link between anxiety and brain fog is crucial, as is seeking professional advice and support for managing these conditions and enhancing quality of life.


Jennings, G., Monaghan, A., Xue, F., Duggan, E., & Romero-Ortuño, R. (2022). Comprehensive Clinical Characterisation of Brain Fog in Adults Reporting Long COVID Symptoms. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 11(12), 3440.

Frontiers Editorial Office. (2021). The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

National Institutes of Health. (2022). Anxiety Disorders. National Institute of Mental Health.

Shields, G. S., Sazma, M. A., & Yonelinas, A. P. (2016). The effects of acute stress on core executive functions: a meta-analysis and comparison with cortisol. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 68, 651-668.

Shields, G. S., Bonner, J. C., & Moons, W. G. (2015). Does cortisol influence core executive functions? A meta-analysis of acute cortisol administration effects on working memory, inhibition, and set-shifting. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 58, 91-103.

Vytal, K., Cornwell, B., Arkin, N., & Grillon, C. (2021). Describing the interplay between anxiety and cognition: From impaired performance under low cognitive load to reduced anxiety under high load. Psychophysiology, 58(6), e13769.

[1] Comprehensive Clinical Characterisation of Brain Fog in Adults Reporting Long COVID Symptoms – National Library of Medicine

[2] Anxiety Disorders – National Institutes of Health

[3] The impact of anxiety upon cognition: perspectives from human threat of shock studies – National Library of Medicine

[4] The Effects of Acute Stress on Core Executive Functions: A Meta-Analysis and Comparison with Cortisol – National Library of Medicine

[5] Describing the interplay between anxiety and cognition: From impaired performance under low cognitive load to reduced anxiety under high load. – National Library of Medicine

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