Have you ever felt that your memory is being impacted by your stress levels? Do you find it difficult to find your keys when you’re having a busy time at work? Or forget the name of a person you have just met in a stressful social situation? Or the dreaded exam brain freeze! Stress can have a strong impact on your memory, but it’s not all bad news.
We have all experienced a time when our memory has failed us in a stressful situation. Both acute and chronic stress can impair our memory, though in slightly different ways. Acute stress affects our memory retrieval – ie. when we are trying to remember something that we have already experienced or already know. This is the stress that affects us when we try to remember someone’s name while suffering from a bout of social anxiety. It can feel like it is on the tip of our tongue, but just won’t come out when needed. When we are feeling more relaxed later on, and there is no pressure on us, the name seems to miraculously appear from nowhere. But it is because we are not in the “fight or flight” mode anymore, and our brains can function in a more normal state.
Chronic stress on the other hand can cause physical changes in the brain. Long term stress exposes the brain and body to high levels of stress hormones (mainly cortisol in the case of memory), which can cause the hippocampus area of the brain to actually shrink. This area of the brain is associated with encoding and forming memories, so when it is impaired, memories aren’t being made as well as they should be.
How stress can help your memory
There is some positive news though about stress and memory. Research has shown that some stress at the right time can actually help improve memory. So, just as stress before or during an event will impair your memory, being exposed to stress after an event actually helps to improve your memory. Stress at this critical time helps to move the information from your short term memory into your long term memory stores, thereby ensuring that it is there for you to retrieve when you need it at a later time. This thereby reduces your chances of forgetting.
How to improve your memory in stressful situations
One of the most important things you can do to improve your memory when stressed is to reduce the stress with some simple self-care practices:
- Make sure you’re getting enough sleep
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet with lots of fresh fruit and vegetables
- Manage stress with a daily relaxation practice – yoga, meditation, qi gong, etc.
- Get some regular exercise – out in nature if possible
Keeping these things in as part of your daily routine helps to keep your stress levels down. There are also some more specific techniques and tools you can learn that will help your memory to improve:
- Train your brain – exercising your cognitive skills by playing brain games can help to boost your memory. Lumosity is one that I like. It’s free to use, fun, and only takes a few minutes a day.
- Pay attention – when you’re stressed, you may focus on the source of your anxiety rather than the new information. Being careful to pay attention helps increase the chances it will get into your head.
- Relate new information to something you already know – eg. when learning a new name, relate the new person to someone you already know with the same name.
- Rehearse new information – when you get a quiet moment, recall the new information over and over. This helps to get it from short term memory into long term memory.
Acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicine can also both help with reducing stress to help improve your memory. Learn more about acupuncture for anxiety and stress.
Franco, F. (2018). How stress affects your memory. [Online] Available at: https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-stress-affects-your-memory/
Kim, E., Pellman, E. & Kim, J. (2015). Stress effects on the hippocampus: a critical review. Learning & Memory, 22 (9), 411-416.
Marr, C., Sauerland, M., Otgaar, H., Quadflieeg, C. & Hope, L. (2018). The effect of acute stress on memory: How it helps and how it hurts. The Inquisitive Mind, 38.
Shields, G., Sazma, M., McCullogh, A. & Yonelinas, A. (2017). The effects of acute stress on episodic memory: a meta-analysis and integrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 143 (6), 636-675.