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Coping With College Classes When You Have Brain Fog

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College is difficult enough as it is: you’re trying to make great grades, improve your resume, have a social life and also remain physically and mentally healthy. That’s basically impossible, since cortisol levels in college students are already ridiculously high — hence the freshman 15 and the constant craving for junk food. But, in other ways, college is even more difficult for those who have to deal with brain fog.

Brain fog is like having cotton candy in your head. It clouds all of your thoughts and makes it hard to access little details you have “stored” in your mind. It’s similar to when you’ve stayed up for 24 hours straight and then have to try and function like a normal human being. It’s like when you have to work the Black Friday shift then go and take a test in class the next day. It’s like being asked too many complicated questions before you’ve had your first cup of coffee.

When I wake up in the morning, my brain functions at basically 10 percent like any other person. But instead of waking up fairly quickly, it feels like my brain can’t shake the morning grogginess. It sticks around all day, like moving through mush to process any and all information. This can happen from time to time with anyone, but this a daily occurrence for me. Some days are better than others of course, but for the most part it’s like trying navigate my day through an uncomfortably thick smog.

Imagine having all of these slow-moving, molasses-like thoughts while trying to function in the college environment. Fast-paced and intense, professors expect you to know what’s going on at all times. You should be able to keep up in class, follow the syllabus and quickly acquire the concepts needed to succeed. I’m a STEM major, which means I spend a lot of time in difficult science classes that require a lot of work and concentration. It can be difficult enough to study; my brain fog makes it even harder.

I spend time in class trying to process the last concept the professor just explained when the whole class has already taken it in and moved on. Frantically, I try to take notes and catch up, but my brain refuses to move that quickly. One moment I’m on top of the work and my notes are perfect, and the next my professor has jumped three slides and moved on to an alien language. My brain can’t make the connection or move quickly enough to figure out what I missed.

I can’t think of the names for concepts, and goodness, please don’t ask me to memorize a bunch of formulas and then spit them back out for a test. All of this may sound normal for a student who had a bad night of sleep or stayed up all night, but this is my everyday.

Taking tests is extremely difficult. I can only study for so long before my mind starts to go blank and my body literally gives out on me. A few hours at a time in an uncomfortable chair hunched over textbooks and notes can only go on for so long before my body is begging me to take a break. I can’t sit and write out zoology notes for six hours straight anymore. Because of the brain fog, I need to study even more than I used to. But how can I do that when I can’t study for as long? It’s an endless cycle of needing to study and not physically being able to. It’s taken adjustments to be able to study the way I need to. Learning to take breaks, and knowing how to churn out my best work in short bursts of energy.

Then comes time for the exam. I go in anxious because I can’t remember the formulas and I pray I can remember enough to pass.

During the test it feels like I didn’t study at all, or like I walked in and someone gave me a test for the wrong class. My heart pounds and my head grows fuzzier because I’m even more stressed out. I feel the anxiety lurking in the back of my mind, knowing I should be doing well on this test but I can’t.

I believe this is why my blogs are sometimes messy or have mistakes. I do my best to edit and re-read everything, but my brain can only process so much right now. It’s a foggy haze from the moment I wake up to the time I go to sleep. I try to make my thoughts as clear as possible, but hey, you’re getting a small peek into what it’s like to write with brain fog.

If my blog posts are a mess, can you imagine what my papers look like? Thank the Lord for putting journalism majors into my life because I wouldn’t make A’s on papers without them. I do what I can to compensate for my sluggish brain, and it seems to be working so far, but there is only so much you can do before your brain tells you it’s done.

Now that I am going through this, I can finally understand how my mom has felt all of these years. I regret ever being frustrated when she couldn’t think of a name, or when she would stop mid-sentence because she completely forgot what she was talking about. I feel sheepish now, because it happens to me all the time. Remember to try your best not to get frustrated with people who have brain fog. I swear they’re trying their best to function.

Taking a college course with brain fog is possible, but a lot of work. You have to be extremely focused and willing to push yourself to your extremes to do your best. You have to accept that sometimes your brain just will not cooperate and you will bomb a quiz or two, that it might take you more time to understand concepts and that you have to be patient with yourself while learning.

Going into a professor’s office hours is incredibly helpful because they get to know you as a person (and might just cut you some slack!). It took me a while to be able to do this — I don’t know why — but I figured out professors put their pants on one leg at time, just like you. Letting your professor know about your illness and its effects as well as taking advantage of whatever accommodations your disability center can provide you is important as well. There is no shame in asking for help from your professor or from the university. They want you to succeed just as you want to, and that’s the best part of college.

This post originally appeared on Walking Through The Fog.

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Originally published: November 18, 2016
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