Memory and Stress

As we may well imagine, stressors impact our bodies, behaviours and feelings. Chronic stress, on the other hand, may lead to actual memory impairment. Left unchecked, stress can contribute to health challenges, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and obesity. Read more.

In their impact on memory, stressors can exercise differential effects in the acquisition, consolidation and retrieval of information details. To understand how stress impacts cognitive function, the National Center for Biotechnology Information, notes the following key parameters:

  • Impact of Chronic Stress on Synaptic Plasticity
  • Chronic Stress effect on Molecular Alterations
  • Excitatory amino acids

Recent study results by researchers from the University of Iowa provide evidence for a link between short-term memory loss and the stress hormone cortisol. Published in the Journal of Neuroscience, their findings show cortisol reduced synapses — connections between neurons — in the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain where short-term memories are stored. It is important to note however that there are pronounced differences between how our brain processes chronic work-related stress, for example, versus the stress resulting from a serious car accident.

Current research suggests that low anxiety levels can affect our ability to recall memories; whereas acute or high-anxiety situations may serve to reinforce the memorization process. Previous research has shown that the acute stress can increase our brain’s ability to encode and recall traumatic events as this acts as a warning and defense mechanism against future trauma. If the stress experienced is ongoing though, potentially serious health consequences may ensue.

Research from the University of California, finds that chronic stress can create long-term brain changes such as increased development of white matter – which helps transmit messages across the brain regions- but paradoxically, it may also reduce the number of neurons available for information processing.

Neuroscientists contend that the resulting imbalance increases the odds of mental illness, while younger people exposed to chronic stress early in life may be more susceptible to developing anxiety, mood or learning related disorders.

To reduce the effects of stress, the Canadian Alzheimer’s Society recommends identifying and reducing stress triggers. Next to eating a healthy diet, exercising and getting enough sleep we can participate in stress-reduction activities such as:

  • deep breathing
  • massage
  • meditation (think tai-chi!)
  • physical exercise

So while experiencing some stress is part of everyday life, if symptoms persist, contact your doctor.

Action steps to reduce stress

  • Take personal time for yourself. Exercise, relaxation, entertainment, hobbies and socializing are essential parts of our health and well-being. Everyone needs to find a balance that limits stress and helps maintain optimal health.
  • Identify unrealistic expectations and try to accept what cannot be changed.
  • Seek and accept support.
  • Utilize a variety of stress reduction methods.
  • Prepare ahead new or unfamiliar situations can create stress and anxiety.
  • Get plenty of sleep.
  • Laugh.
  • For some great ways to take action on brain health, visit our Brain Boost Workout pages.

Take home message

Stress represents a form of interference with our memory encoding process. A key point to remember is that it is impossible to forget something that was not properly encoded to begin with! When you are stressed by something (e.g. work, a colleague etc.) this stress takes a lot of resources from your brain and interferes with your capacity to encode any new information. This is when you will forget the management meeting, or to bring your child to the dentist. Did you really forget these events? OR did these events even make their way into your memory in the first place i.e. were they encoded?

Please join us next week as we address the all-important subject of “how to improve your memory” !

DynamicBrain Inc. is the Canadian Partner of Posit Science Corporation providing brain fitness program, BrainHQ in English and French.