How Stress Affects Your Memory

How Stress Affects Your Memory

All of us have been in stressful situations. Stress is an inevitable part of daily life that is detrimental to your health. It can lead to anxiety, depression, heart problems, and other diseases. But did you know that stress can also inhibit how you form and retrieve memories?

Types of Stress

Stress affects your memory in several ways. The relationship between the two is complex. Stress can both have a negative and positive effect on memory. It is important to distinguish between short-term  moderate stress vs long-term or chronic stress, which have different effects on memory.

Short-term Stress and Memory

Short-term moderate stress can cause your brain to work harder and improve your memory for that activity. This effect is known as “stress-induced facilitation.” Researchers believe this is because short-term stress causes you to focus on a particular task at hand, leading to an increase in blood flow and oxygen supply to your brain. This helps the connections between neurons in your brain, which can help you remember more efficiently for the time being. After all, our stress response was designed to allow us to focus and think quickly when a threat like a lion walks into our camp.

Short-term stress also increases the levels of adrenaline and cortisol in your body, which are hormones that make us feel more alert. During stress, the amygdala sends signals to the hippocampus, sending signals back to the amygdala that triggers a release of these stress hormones. While stress can enhance  memory momentarily, experiencing long-term stress takes a serious toll on our cognitive abilities. 

Chronic Stress and Memory Formation

Heavy workload and tight deadlines, financial struggles, and interpersonal conflicts are some causes of a constant, prolonged state of stress. This is something like always having a lion in our tent.

Chronic or long-term stress has a negative effect on our brain and cognition. It can make it harder to recall information from recent events and prevent you from making new memories. This is because long-term stress activates many of the same pathways in the brain as short-term stress—but unlike short-term stress, long-term stress does not allow for adequate recovery time between bouts of high activity. This means that these pathways become exhausted over time and cannot function properly when needed by the hippocampus during learning or retrieval. 

Chronic stress affects the formation of short-term memories and makes it difficult to turn these into long-term memories. To understand why stress can interfere with memory processing, we need to know how memory works. Memory processing involves encoding, consolidation, and retrieval, which can be inhibited by chronic stress. 

  • Encoding

Encoding is the process where information is translated into a form that can be stored in our brains. When you are stressed, your ability to think clearly is impaired as your attention gets diverted toward the stressor (e.g., an angry boss or lion in your tent). This means that you do not pay as much attention to other sources of information while you are stressed—including memories that could be encoded into our long-term memories.  

  • Consolidation

Consolidation is the process in which memories are transferred from short term or working memory into long term memory storage systems such as episodic or semantic memory; this transfer takes place over time after initial encoding has occurred. When you are stressed, it becomes harder for you to concentrate on anything except for what is causing you stress. This means that fewer memories are likely to be consolidated into long term memories.

  • Retrieval

Retrieval is when you try to recall something from your long-term memory. When you’re under stress, your brain can be overstimulated and has to devote more energy to process what’s happening at the moment, so it has less capacity to store information for later retrieval. That’s because stress is a part of your “fight or flight” response. It’s meant to help you focus on surviving at the moment rather than remembering information from the past. 

The hippocampus, a part of your brain where memories are stored and retrieved, is the most affected by stress. Research has shown that chronic stress can cause your hippocampus to shrink over time, increasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

The Impact of High Cortisol Levels on Memory

Cortisol is a hormone that helps us deal with difficult situations by reducing inflammation in our bodies and calming us down so we can focus on what we need to do at hand. Cortisol helps increase blood flow throughout the body and improve cognition by increasing glucose metabolism in your brain. Although this is good for short periods of time, too much cortisol can impair cognitive function. If cortisol levels stay high for too long, it will cause damage to brain cells and lead to memory loss over time. High cortisol levels damage nerve cells in the hippocampus and prevent them from creating and retrieving memories.

A study conducted in 2018 concluded that higher morning blood cortisol levels were associated with impaired memory, lower brain performance and less brain matter volume (brains shrank) in young to middle-aged adults without dementia (mostly in their 40s), with the results being more evident in women. Results showed that those with higher cortisol levels performed worse on memory tests, attention, abstract reasoning, and visual perception.

Ways to Manage Stress

Knowing how to alleviate your stress is the key to keeping your cognitive functions working properly. Here are some ways to manage stress:

Ways to alleviate stress

Key Takeaway

Stress is something we have to deal with every day. While short-term stress can work to your advantage in retrieving information at the moment, chronic stress can impair your memory and focus in the long run. If you manage your stress levels well, you’ll be able to keep your mind focused and remember the things that matter most.

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