‘I can’t cope with multiple inputs’: a qualitative study of the lived experience of ‘brain fog’ after COVID-19
Callan C., Ladds E., Husain L., Pattinson K., Greenhalgh T.
ObjectiveTo explore the lived experience of ‘brain fog’—the wide variety of neurocognitive symptoms that can follow COVID-19.Design and settingA UK-wide longitudinal qualitative study comprising online focus groups with email follow-up.Method50 participants were recruited from a previous qualitative study of the lived experience of long COVID-19 (n=23) and online support groups for people with persistent neurocognitive symptoms following COVID-19 (n=27). In remotely held focus groups, participants were invited to describe their neurocognitive symptoms and comment on others’ accounts. Individuals were followed up by email 4–6 months later. Data were audiotaped, transcribed, anonymised and coded in NVIVO. They were analysed by an interdisciplinary team with expertise in general practice, clinical neuroscience, the sociology of chronic illness and service delivery, and checked by people with lived experience of brain fog.ResultsOf the 50 participants, 42 were female and 32 white British. Most had never been hospitalised for COVID-19. Qualitative analysis revealed the following themes: mixed views on the appropriateness of the term ‘brain fog’; rich descriptions of the experience of neurocognitive symptoms (especially executive function, attention, memory and language), accounts of how the illness fluctuated—and progressed over time; the profound psychosocial impact of the condition on relationships, personal and professional identity; self-perceptions of guilt, shame and stigma; strategies used for self-management; challenges accessing and navigating the healthcare system; and participants’ search for physical mechanisms to explain their symptoms.ConclusionThese qualitative findings complement research into the epidemiology and mechanisms of neurocognitive symptoms after COVID-19. Services for such patients should include: an ongoing therapeutic relationship with a clinician who engages with their experience of neurocognitive symptoms in its personal, social and occupational context as well as specialist services that include provision for neurocognitive symptoms, are accessible, easily navigable, comprehensive and interdisciplinary.