At the end of a nerve-racking week you may find it difficult to remember even the simplest things. If so, you’re not alone. Clinical psychologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital, Dr Yvonne McCulloch, explains the impact of stress on our memory.
A little stress is OK
There are two types of stress - acute and chronic. Acute stress is what you experience during a job interview, a minor traffic accident or a ride on a roller coaster. Small amounts of acute stress can actually aid our memory. According to clinical psychologist at Bupa Cromwell Hospital, Dr Yvonne McCulloch, the brain becomes more efficient at registering the detail and memories can seem like a ‘flash bulb’ or vivid recall of the event. “We tend to remember highly emotional events more easily, even if they are stressful.”
Chronic stress impairs learning and memory
But too much tension negatively impacts our memory and learning. “Chronic stress occurs when we are under pressure over a longer period of time. It is well recognised as detrimental to learning and memory,” Dr McCulloch said.
When we experience anxiety our bodies produce additional ‘stress hormones’ such as adrenaline and cortisol. In particular, cortisol interferes with the energy supply to certain brain cells which aid in memory. Chronic stress actually changes the structure of our brain and the way it processes information. These changes can lead to greater emotional problems, including anxiety and depression if sustained.
Stress impact on memory varies
How much your memory is impaired depends on a number of factors including length and intensity of stress, age and even personality. The older we get, the more vulnerable we become to the effects of stress on our memory. We are also more susceptible to a decline in our cognitive abilities if we have an anxious personality.
“Our response to stressors is a very individual thing. How we are affected by stress largely depends on how we perceive our ability to deal with it. Those who think of themselves as less able to handle stress are more negatively impacted by it.”
Symptoms of stress
There are a number of psychological, emotional and physical signs of stress. Memory problems or a difficulty concentrating is a common indicator that you are under too much pressure.
Concentration is almost always affected in chronic stress situations,” Dr McCulloch said. “When our concentration is poor we don’t process the information well. Attention or concentration is the gateway to memory, so if we can’t concentrate, we won’t remember what we are hearing or seeing.”
For a full list of the signs and symptoms of stress please see Bupa’s health information.
Ways to reduce stress
The good news is stress-related memory problems are entirely reversible. The longer you are under stress the longer it can take to resolve, but by reducing stress, your brain will return to normal and with it, your memory.
There are a number of ways you can reduce stress. Dr McCulloch advises, “Don’t take on too much. Be realistic about what you can get done.”
Other concrete actions you can take include limiting alcohol and caffeine, as well as making sure you get enough physical exercise. Being active actually reduces the level of stress hormones in your body and increases the amount of endorphins or your ‘feel good’ hormones. If you have sleep problems, try and tackle this by using tips for getting a good night’s rest.
If you are finding it difficult to unwind you can try relaxation tapes or use a technique such as progressive muscle relaxation - a method of reducing anxiety by alternately tensing and relaxing the muscles. Mindfulness, a form of meditation, has also been shown to be very good at reducing stress. People who suffer from stress often find it difficult to relax but it is worth persevering at this.
“Just as how we perceive stress is different for everyone, the ways we manage stress is equally unique. Use whatever works best for you. And if you are finding your stress levels unmanageable, talk to your doctor.”