Have you ever noticed that when you’re under a lot of stress, you have a hard time remembering things? Does it seem like no matter how much you rehearse that big work presentation, your mind goes blank as soon as you open your mouth?
You’re not imagining this phenomenon – it has to do with the way our brains function.
Research has found a link between low levels of chronic anxiety and the brain’s recall ability. So, if you’ve become accustomed to the everyday stress of a high-stakes job, maybe you’ve noticed having a difficult time remembering things too.
The Connection Between Stress & Memory Loss
Researchers at the University of Iowa found a possible explanation for this. In a recent study, they found a connection between the stress hormone, cortisol, and short-term memory loss. Cortisol is thought to lower the number of connections between neurons in the part of the brain that controls short-term memory, resulting in a spotty recall.
Conversely, studies have shown acute stress (like a car accident) actually increases the brain’s ability to recall. Research has found that these types of traumatic memories are stored in the part of the brain responsible for survival. This has led experts to believe that we remember traumatic events vividly as a way to help us recognize future trauma and defend against it.
Other studies have gone so far as to say that chronic stress can even change the structure of our brains. These studies have found that stress can increase amounts of white matter, which helps send messages across different parts of the brain. But it also decreases the number of neurons that help with information processing, causing an imbalance.
This imbalance can alter the brain’s functionality and could even leave you more susceptible to mental illnesses like chronic depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia.
How to Prevent Memory Loss Caused by Stress
The good news is that the brain is capable of positive change too. One study looked at how the brain recovers after a severe stress. While the number of participants in the study was small, the results indicated positive changes in participants’ brains over time once the stressor was removed.
Stress is generally a very manageable issue. The first step is acknowledging what kind of stress you’re experiencing. From there, you can work on eliminating stressors where you can, or developing coping mechanisms for unavoidable stressors, and working on stress management training to help prepare you for future stressors.
Remember, it’s normal to feel stressed from time to time, but when it begins to affect your quality of life, it might be time to find better-coping habits. There are many different ways to manage stress, so it’s just a matter of finding the option that works best for you.
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Govender, S. & Cheshire S. (2014, June 19). “Chronic stress can hurt your memory.” Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2014/06/17/health/memory-stress-link/index.html
Landau, Elizabeth. (2012, September 3). “Stress may harm brain – but it recovers.” Retrieved from http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/09/03/stress-may-harm-brain-but-it-recovers/
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