Memory And Stress

Stress id another lifestyle factor that can really zap your memory power. Feeling stressed is of course just another part of being human. But devastating stress can take a terrific toll on our overall health, not to mention our memory.


For most of us stress is a feeling of pressure and lack of control. Yet formally stress is defined as merely the way you react to change. Stress in and of itself is not problematic. In fact, both “good” and “bad” life events are stressful. What distinguishes “good” stress from “bad” stress (distress) is the degree to which we feel we are in control.

For instance, most people would consider losing their job as more stressful than getting married. It is the sense of the former being more out of your control that makes it more distressful.

Don’t Let Stress Zap Your Memory!

You return from a much-needed week’s holiday in the tropics where you didn’t take your laptop. You are relaxed, suntanned, and your wife’s hero for making a hat out of palm fronds and ordering dinner in broken Tahitian.

There is no way this peaceful and blissful feeling is going to wear off, even after going back to the grind at the office next week. You swear to rise above it, remember the peaceful waves of paradise, no matter how stressful the condition around you. And you do, until about noon your first day back at work.

The greatest hidden enemy of memory and quality longevity is chronic stress. High anxiety and stress levels often creep up on us without our awareness. Many of us lead tense and hurried lives, where even the mental and physical benefits of occasional rest and recreation disappear quickly and leave us as stressed out as before.

Everyone has a different baseline stress level, depending on personality style, coping skills, degree of self-awareness, and other factors.

How Stress Effects Memory

To understand how stress affects memory, let’s look at what happens when we feel stress. When we experience stress, our body triggers a “stress adaptation” response, otherwise known as the “fight or flight” response. So what happens?

  • Heart rate increases
  • Hormones, including adrenaline and glucocorticoids, are released
  • Stored sugar is released toy the liver
  • Breathing becomes more rapid and shallow
  • Muscles, tense to prepare for movement
  • Senses are heightened
  • Blood flaw to brain and major muscles increases
  • Blood flow to digestive organs and extremities is restricted

This response to stress is a remainder of our primitive past. After all, this kind of preparation was necessary if we were faced with something life-threatening, such as an attacking bear. Rarely today do we find ourselves in such life-or-death situations.

But our bodies can’t tell the difference between such events and the comparatively ordinary pressures of modern living, such as being stuck in traffic or getting into an argument with your spouse. The stress-adaptation response kicks in, again and again, exposing us frequently to low levels of this stressed condition.

This insistent chronic stress has been connected with various medical and emotional conditions, ranging from cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal ailments, immune suppression; and endocrine changes.

What about memory? Stress lowers memory performance secondarily because of its impact on overall health. Stress also makes us more distracted, which lowers our capability to obtain information we may want to remember.

There is growing proof that stress may directly weaken memory function as well. Research has connected excess stress to shrinkage of the hippocampus, the area of the brain linked with new learning. Proof for this has come from animal studies as well as studies in human populations exposed to excessive stress, such as individuals suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.

Scientists theorize that stress-induced increases of glucocorticoids are responsible for such changes. While more work is needed in this area, these findings suggest that stress is bad for memory in more ways than we previously understood.



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