Perhaps you remember a time when focusing wasn’t so hard, and when your thoughts seemed sharper, clearer, as though you were constantly on the edge of your seat. Now, you may find yourself battling fatigue and fuzzy thinking, feeling as though your thoughts aren’t as sharp as they used to be. No, this isn’t early onset Alzheimer’s; it turns out this may simply be a symptom of depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder.

According to a study out of the University of Michigan, this fuzzy effect is indeed real for depression and bipolar patients, and it can be seen affecting certain parts of the brain on brain scans. The researchers also conclude that based on these results, depression and bipolar disorder are likely to be on a spectrum of mood disorders, rather than being completely separate, unrelated things.

In the study, researchers from the University of Michigan Medical School and Depression Center analyzed 612 female participants, two-thirds of whom had experienced major depression or bipolar disorder in the past. Whether they had depression or bipolar disorder, the women with some sort of mood disorder/mental illness performed equally poorly on cognitive tests, which involved reacting to letters flashing on a screen. The women with mental illnesses all lagged behind the women who had no mental health problem on the tests.

Why did this happen? The researchers took brain scans and focused on one particular part of the brain — right posterior parietal cortex, which is associated with executive function (working memory, problem solving, reasoning, etc). They found that the women with depression or bipolar disorder had different activity in the right posterior parietal cortex; depressed participants had higher activity while bipolar disorder participants had lower activity.

“In all, we show a shared cognitive dysfunction in women with mood disorders, which were pronounced in the cognitive control tests and more nuanced in scans,” Kelly Ryan, an author of the study and a neuropsychologist at UM, said in the press release. “These findings support the idea of seeing mood disorders dimensionally, as a continuum of function to dysfunction across illnesses that are more alike than distinct.”

Fighting The Fog

Whatever the mental illness, feeling foggy and unfocused may contribute to feelings of uselessness or lack of self-esteem.

“As someone who suffers from depression I absolutely know what they are talking about with ‘fuzzy thinking,’ quite often your brain just feels like its swimming in molasses and you have no mental agility,” one Reddit user writes in response to the study. “Everything thought has to be laboriously teased out.”

Fortunately, there are ways to overcome the cognitive effects of depression. That includes, first and foremost, taking a look at your schedule and figuring out whether you’re overwhelmed with too many things on your plate. Chronic stress can tire out your mind and body, and force your mind to shut down, leading to lowered cognitive and memory ability. Time management, exercise, proper sleep, and nutrition will all help you boost your mind’s sharpness and fight the negative effects of depression.

“Reducing overt stress, both emotional and environmental, and learning positive coping mechanisms are terrific therapy for the brain, and your lifestyle and daily schedule may be the first place to start when thinking about what may be causing your mental fog,” nurse practitioner Marcelle Pick writes on Women to Women. In other words, instead of despairing over fuzzy thinking and lost attention, take the steps to figure out what might be behind it.

Source: Ryan K, Dawson E, Kassel M, Weldon A, Marshall D, Meyers K. Shared dimensions of performance and activation dysfunction in cognitive control in females with mood disorders. Brain. 2015.