Memories play a big part in making us who we are. While long-term memory is the sum of past experiences and lessons learned over a lifetime, short-term memory allows people to operate from one moment to the next, managing daily tasks and living a normal life.
Having a problem with your memory can have a major impact on your cognitive function and psychological well-being. Memory is susceptible to a lot of factors in your life — including chronic stress. This blog delves into how stress can heavily impact memory retention and formation.
What Is the Connection Between Memory and Stress?
Stress is a part of life, and it’s usually not intrusive. In fact, some experts believe a certain amount of stress is healthy, encouraging us to focus and get things done.
But when stress becomes uncontrollably high or is mismanaged, it can cause a breakdown in normal function. Memory is especially vulnerable to this kind of stress-related impairment. Stress has dramatic effects on how the brain works, and if you’re in recovery, it even has the potential to harm your sobriety.
The Neurological Connections Between Stress and Memory
Stress in life can come from many sources, and the effects it has vary from person to person. As such, studies and their results vary, but it does seem that stress and memory have a two-way relationship. At normal levels, such as when you cram for a test or work toward a tight deadline, stress can actually stimulate cognitive function. That level of pressure can actually stimulate memory formation and help lay down new pathways in the brain.
Stress from trauma is in a different class. This kind of stress tends to be sharply felt and come on suddenly, stimulating the formation of uncomfortable or even traumatic memories. The high level of stress can also negatively affect memory accuracy and retrieval. A person dealing with traumatic stress can be haunted by persistent memories or may lose the ability to accurately remember events altogether.
These effects are likely related to how stress causes the release of cortisol in the brain. The “stress hormone” triggers the brain to quickly lay down new pathways and encode memories in a flash. In the case of traumatic memories, this deep encoding can burn the trauma into a person’s memory and even cause flashbacks later on, which may be disturbing and can get in the way of living a normal life.
The Long-Term Effects of Chronic Stress on Memory and Brain Health
At high levels of sustained stress, such as circumstances experienced by people in combat zones or traumatic personal relationships, physical harm to the brain can cause long-term damage. High stress over extended periods can cause confusion, anxiety and retrograde amnesia, which is the inability to recall things from the past that you used to remember. These symptoms are known as stress-induced memory loss.
What Types of Memory Are Most Affected by Stress?
Brains form memories in different ways, which researchers categorize as implicit, procedural explicit, declarative, relational and nonassociative. Stress affects these methods of forming memories differently. In particular, explicit, declarative and relational types of learning seem to be the most negatively affected by traumatic stress.
Explicit memory is what most people think of when they think about remembering things. An explicit memory is the recollection of a set of facts or reenactment of skills consciously stored in memory. Your memory of the multiplication table is explicit, as is much of the “book learning” you remember from school.
Declarative memories are facts you’ve memorized. They differ from explicit learning in that declarative memories can be narrated like stories rather than acted out as a new skill. A funny anecdote from your childhood is a declarative memory, as is your recollection of staying up late to learn multiplication, as opposed to recalling the numbers themselves.
Relational memory is the ability to recall how things are connected. The classic example is struggling to recall the person’s name even if you remember their face. In this case, the connection between the way a person looks and how their name sounds is relational.
Strategies for Managing Stress and Improving Memory and Cognitive Function
These are some of the most necessary and frequently utilized types of memories, and losing them can be a major impediment to normal activity. Even a temporary failure of these types of memories can be distressing — consider the stress caused when you can’t remember where you left your keys.
These situations have the potential to create a vicious cycle of stress-memory impairment-more stress that eventually gets to be too much. Signs you may be suffering from too much stress include:
- Heightened emotional sensitivity, such as a short temper or crying easily
- Feelings of being overwhelmed or “on the brink”
- Noticeable memory loss that doesn’t just go away on its own
- Indecision or lack of concentration
- Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
The good news is that for many people dealing with stress-induced memory loss, these problems are temporary. Fighting the disabling problems of memory loss caused by stress is sometimes as simple as reducing the underlying stress and letting the memories come back on their own. There are several ways to do this:
- Exercise. Exercise gets the heart pumping and encourages the release of de-stressing hormones. It also feels good and can help reduce anxiety.
- Meditation. Meditation, however you do it, is a relaxing process that many people find lowers their stress and helps focus their minds.
- Support. Positive interactions with other people can greatly reduce chronic and acute stress alike. Simply spending time with family, friends or members of your support group can bring tremendous relief from stress.
Getting Help When You Need It
Sometimes nothing seems to work, and stress is like the guest who won’t leave. When this happens and you can’t shake off the anxiety, or if it’s a chronic issue that seems to be getting worse, it may be time to reach out for help.
The compassionate care team at Restore Mental Health can help you through your unique circumstances. Contact us today for a free, confidential consultation to take the first steps toward alleviating your stress.