Stress & Memory | How Stress Affects Our Memory
“Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn’t. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with a will of its own. You think you have a memory, but it has you!” – John Irving
You sat in the test hall, your text paper in front of you and your mind is – blank. Have you ever wondered why this happens? Why, under extreme stress, you forget the smallest things? Like when you leave your house under stress, you forget your keys or wallet.
While a little stress can act as a motivator, a lot of stress – however – can create a hindrance in your life. This includes your mental health, your relationships, and even your memories. Stress affects how our memories are created.
When people are under stress, they face trouble staying focused on the present moment making it harder to create memories – short-term or long-term. Stress can easily take over our ability to feel emotions and think thoughts.
Stress is our body’s natural response to situations that are dangerous. It also activates the flight-and-fight response that causes our body to either run away from a situation or confront the problem.
This fight or flight response triggers a distress signal to our brain which then pushes adrenaline into our bloodstream that can cause psychological changes like increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, sharpens our senses, and increases breathing. Our stress response not only helps us to confront stressful challenges but also affects our cognitive functions including our memory.
How Stress Affects Our Memory
When our body responds to stress – real or perceived, our brain activity increases and it starts pumping adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormone. While under many situations anxiety and stress can enhance our memory, making it easy for us to fight similar situations faced in the past, higher levels of stress can lead to memory loss.
If we’re in the middle of a stressful event, we may face difficulty remembering the details of the said event in the future. This is why eye-witness testimonies presented in courts are unreliable. While they may remember something a certain way immediately, they may have trouble recalling it at a later date.
This is also one of the reasons why ‘false memories’ are created. Memories can be changed. Have you ever noticed that whenever we recall a memory, something changes – even if it’s the smallest detail? In a research study, it was found that when people were questioned about something, they were presented with misinformation and that particular information influenced their memory.
Stress can make it harder for us to focus, recall something, or focus on the task at hand. We have two major types of memory – short-term memory and long-term memory. Stress usually first affects our short-term memory which includes our ability to remember our day-to-day tasks.
Retaining short-term memory is however important to develop long-term memory. This reaction of stress to our memories can create issues with learning and general cognitive functioning in the long-term. For instance, if a person has been through a traumatic event, they might face trouble recalling the event in the future. This happens mostly if there is a childhood trauma involved.
Stress increases cortisol but this hormone is not always responsible for memory loss. In fact, in another interesting study, it was found a higher cortisol level didn’t impair memory function. Stress can also cause a person to feel exhaustion and tiredness. Exhaustion can normally lead to cognitive impairment including the ability to retain attention and short-term memory.
How To Improve Memory Under Stressful Conditions
There are many things and activities that can help you improve your memory when you’re under stress. Some of them are:
1. Breathing Exercises
Breathing exercises, visualizing your happy place, other relaxation activities are helpful in such situations. When you’re stressed, focus on your breathing and try to relax. Activities such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation can help improve your memory-retaining abilities. Some tricks such as clenching your fists can also help you stay in control during stressful conditions.
2. Staying Active
Regular exercise like cardio and aerobic exercises can also help in improving your memory. If you’re constantly under stress and have trouble recalling memories then participating in regular physical exercises can help you improve your cognitive functioning.
Mindfulness is a practice that helps you stay focused on the present moment. If you experience stress and memory impairment, then practicing mindfulness can be very helpful for you. Mindfulness also helps in improving sleep – which is related to stress and stress-induced memory loss. Good quality sleep can be beneficial in improving your cognitive functioning under stressful conditions.
4. Reach Out
If you’re facing memory loss quite frequently and if the loss of memory is persisting for a long time, then it is recommended that you reach out to a therapist or a professional mental healthcare provider for help. Memory issues can be caused by excessive drinking, side-effects of certain medications, vitamin deficiencies, etc. if you or your loved one shows signs of declining memory, then reach out and ask for help.
Memory is a process that helps us collect, preserve, and retain information in the future. Memory problems can range from mild inconveniences such as forgetting answers during a test or forgetting keys or wallet at home to major illnesses and conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia.
Stress can affect a person’s ability to perform their daily tasks, the ability to focus on the present moment, and the ability to retain information.
When we are under stress, we can face difficulty in creating short-term memories and retain important information, hence affecting our cognitive abilities. With the help of some self-help tricks, breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and therapy – managing stress and keeping our memories safe can become easy.
If you or your loved ones are constantly experiencing memory loss then it is recommended that you reach out to a professional mental healthcare provider for proper treatment.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” – William James
Stay Well, Stay Safe!