Janis is a licensed professional counselor in Washington, DC. Areas of specialty include grief, loss, life transition, and trauma recovery.
What's That Foggy Feeling in My Head?
We've all experienced it at one time or another. It's that dreaded feeling when your brain goes blank, where you stop in mid-sentence and the words don't come. Or you don't remember where you just put your keys.
Mind blanking is a full-on fight-or-flight response that occurs during frantic moments when we think of nothing for a moment or two. This mental state shares similarities with mind wandering. While mind wandering occurs when thoughts unrelated to the current task are brought to the forefront of our attention, no stimuli is brought to mind during a mind blank.
Adrian Ward Ph.D., Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, describes the phenomena as " . . . conscious awareness [that] is directed neither toward the present perceptual environment nor toward stimuli decoupled from this environment."
This article will detail:
- Why am I drawing a blank?
- What happens when my mind goes blank?
- What practical steps combat blank brain?
- What are strategies for prevention?
Why Am I Drawing a Blank?
There are both internal and external origins for the reasons our brains blank. Some of the causes include:
- Change: New results towards a goal may require a way of thinking that is new to the brain. Sometimes our mind sabotages our efforts in order to remain immutable.
- Anxiety associated with performing before a group: Our fear of public speaking and the feelings of vulnerability that comes with it is a common stress-prompting event that causes us to draw blanks.
- Medication: If you experience brain fog after recently taking medication, than you should talk to your doctor or healthcare professional to make sure that it is a side effect of the drug.
- Lack of sleep: We are less efficient when our bodies are not operating off of a healthy night's rest.
- Feeling Overwhelmed: Our busy lives may wear us thin if we are not taking measures to take care of ourselves. Sometimes our brain goes blank when we realize that we have less resources than required for all the tasks we need to get done.
Medical conditions linked with blanking out typically include inflammation, fatigue, and changes in blood sugar levels. Those diagnosed with fibromyalgia may experience mental fatigue on a daily basis. Other conditions that cause empty-headed symptoms include:
- Alzheimer's disease
What Happens When My Mind Goes Blank?
For most people, mind blanking is an irritating phenomenon that temporarily interrupts us from doing what needs to get done. Why does this happen?
The Anatomy of the Empty Head
There are three main regions of that brain that are involved when our minds go blank: the hypothalamus, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
- Hypothalamus: The bridge between our perceived emotions and our physical sensations. The hypothalamus is strongly associated with our endocrine system and the hormones that exist throughout our bodies.
- Hippocampus: The center of our emotions. The hippocampus plays a pivotal role in both learning and fact retrieval.
- Prefrontal Cortex: Controls the aspects that differentiate humans from other animals including planning, decision-making, impulse control, and social interaction.
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Hot and Cold Cognition
During predictable, everyday tasks our brains engage in cold cognition. The hypothalamus is slowed down, and we are able to enjoy our music or study while our stress hormone levels are low.
On the other hand, risky, unpredictable situations place us in the realm of hot cognition. Someone who must choose between meeting a deadline or joining friends at a party may experience hot cognition. As a result of the stress and perceived threat, the hypothalamus activates the fight-or-flight response which subsequently releases cortisol and other exciting hormones into our bodies. These hormones invade the PFC and the hippocampus, disrupting neuronal activity and our normal brain patterns. As a result, our methods for factual retrieval and recall methods are disrupted.
Five Practical Steps to Taking Control and Combating Blank Brain
In order to combat blank brain, five critical areas need to be addressed. Being proactive can help decrease the fears, frustration, and lack of control this phenomenon can cause in your life.
These steps are offered based solely on years of experience counseling clients who deal with high levels of exposure to stress and performance anxiety.
1. Understand How the Brain Works
- Accept that the brain at times can go on overload and needs a break; even computers crash so why not the complex human brain.
- The brain has the capacity to store an infinite amount of information but cannot always retrieve it immediately.
- Short-term memory, long-term memory, and attentiveness determine your ability to retain, recall, and retrieve information; it's not your fault.
2. Don't Take Yourself so Seriously
- Re-adjust your expectations about producing; temporarily reset your goals.
- Laugh at yourself when you fumble or forget what to say; play it off with a confident demeanor and move on.
- Read a sample of your favorite work or view a video of your best presentation to remind yourself how productive you have been and can be again; you are the same person with the same skills.
3. Use Specific Techniques to Assist You
- Learn deep breathing exercises; incoporate them into your life as a way to stabilize and maintain a sense of inner calm; at the moment of blank brain, take a long, deep breath, relax, collect your thoughts, and allow your memory to do it's job before anxiety sets in.
- Do not take information in passively; be alert and attentive to the information you want to retain, remember, and retrieve later; pay attention to external cues, make them meaningful to you; let your awareness of information around you feed your ideas.
- Keep written notes and ideas on 3x5 cards; have them handy for presentations in case you draw a blank; for writers, use the same technique to jot down ideas that you can refer back to and expand upon when you're having a dry spell. Create an idea bank.
Blank Brain Produces Empty Pages and Blank Screens
4. Know Your Stuff
- If you familiarize yourself with your topic, know what you're talking about, do your research, and strive to become an expert, you are less likely to flub or go blank. Develop a niche.
- Expand your experiences and social circles to increase exposure to more encounters from which you can draw more ideas. Sitting at home without regular social interaction and involvement will not lend itself to fresh ideas coming into your head.
- Learn something new that you're not necessarily interested in and either speak about it or write about it. You may discover something new and unexpected that will stimulate new ways of thinking outside the box. Use a thesaurus for new words and phrasings to change up your speaking or writing flavor.
5. Know Yourself
- Be aware and honest with yourself about personal issues, losses, elevated stress levels, or unresolved traumas that might be getting in the way of your capacity to function optimally. Self-care, breaks, regular support, and healthy outlets are necessary for sustained productivity and performance.
Seek Medical Attention
Recurring panic attacks, sleep problems, changes in appetite, dizziness, headaches, poor concentration, fatigue and other symptoms of depression may be signs that you need medical assistance. If these symptoms persist, worsen, or prevent daily functioning at home and at work for a significant duration (six months or more for anxiety, two weeks or more for depression), consider a medical or neurological evaluation.
Relieve Your Blank Brain With Knowledge and Prevention
Luckily, there are simple ways to go about preventing our minds from going blank in the future. With a little practice and discipline, these untimely patterns can be unlearned.
1. Be comfortable informing people your mind has gone blank.
Panicking and worrying about the potentially humiliating consequences of having nothing to say in that moment will not help your thoughts come.
2. Ground yourself in your environment.
Center your attention outside of your mind. Take notice of your environment with the help of your senses. Breath deeply and let the anxiety fade on its own.
3. Follow your intuition.
Don't over-exert your mind when it goes blank. Let your higher source guide you until it is safe to return your focus.
4. Silence is not disastrous.
Silent moments in conversation is bound to happen. Practice maintaining your outer composure and moving on when you feel that disaster has struck. Being secure in ourselves is all mental.
5. Know your limitations.
In our society where productivity and performance define our self-worth, blank brain can take a toll on our ability to live up to our professional and personal expectations. We contribute to those unrealistic expectations by pushing ourselves too much. Exercise, eat well, and avoid overindulging on caffeine, alcohol, and drugs.
We have more control than we think we do by taking preventative steps to combat blank brain. Taking better care of ourselves will increase our ability to produce good work on a consistent basis.
Drawing a Blank Brain
Dr. Shroff, Sudeep Do You Sometimes Go Blank? Resource Life. Retrieved from http://resourcefullife.net/going-blank/
Macleod, Chris. When Your Mind Goes Blank, Or You Can Only Think Slowly, In Social Situations. Succeed Socially. 2006. Retrieved from https://www.succeedsocially.com/mindgoesblank.
Ward, Andre. Mind-blanking: When the Mind Goes Away. inPsychology. 27 September, 2013. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00650/full.