Stress and Memory? Helpful or Harmful?
We all know the cycle: We are ready to leave for a doctor’s appointment and can’t find our car keys. We look everywhere, try to remember where we put them, look again, frantically call the doctor’s office, try remember again . . . and later, when we are calm, there they are, right where we put them earlier that day.
What happens when we are stressed?
Well, the answer isn’t as simple as we might think; but without digging deeply into research articles, the following is a general description of the relationship between stress and memory.
- We need a little stress to make a memory . . . to put information into our memories. After all, we have to be motivated to learn something new. We have to want to remember or we have to need to remember, and both wanting and needing mean we are just a little stressed.
- When we are chronically stressed (stressed most of the time), we don’t remember well. We are often confused and lack focus when we are chronically stressed.
- We make stronger memories when we experience severe or traumatic stresses than when we deal with day to day stresses. We remember losing our wallets with all our identification and credit cards, having an accident, and other events that are even more stressful.
We need some stress to pay attention, but we don’t want to be stressed all the time. And, even though we remember best when we are severely stressed, there are many reasons that severe stress is not good for our health.
What is happening?
Essentially, when we are chronically stressed, we produce hormones that affect the structure of the brain itself and interfere with the way neurons in the brain communicate with each other. Too much of these hormones damage the communication in the brain . . . the connections or pathways that build our memories.
What do we do about this?
- Identify stressors and try to minimize them.
- Avoid increasing your stress when you don’t remember: relax, give yourself time to remember, change your focus for a while.
- Live a healthy life style that promotes relaxation: exercise, meditate, socialize, sleep enough and eat well.
Would you like to read more about the effects of stress on memory? Look at Govender and Chesire’s CNN article at http://www.cnn.com/2014/06/17/health/memory-stress-link/.