How many times have you walked into a room and wondered what it was you came in for? Or perhaps you’ve misplaced your glasses (again) to only shortly later realize they are on top of your head. Or maybe you can’t recall the name of the person you just spoke with even though you’ve known them for years? Instead of judging yourself as forgetful, chalking it up to age, or worrying that your exhibiting signs of Alzheimer disease, check your stress level. Our everyday surroundings—where there is pressure to perform—creates an environment of fear that can affect our brain and autonomic nervous system. Let’s stop for a moment and think about the effects of stress on memory.
Stress and the Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response
When we are afraid, our brain limits our ability to think. The amygdala, located in the Lymbic System, is the non-conscious part of the brain. When it becomes activated, the Autonomic Nervous System transitions into fight (argumentative or resistant), flight (retreat) or freeze (do nothing) mode. When this happens several significant outcomes result:
- Neurochemicals and hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline generate and distribute throughout the body
- the digestive system shuts downs so that we can use that energy to respond
- the pre-frontal cortex referred to as our “executive brain”, dims down or shuts down so we don’t spend an inordinate amount of time analyzing the threat.
While all this serves to protect us in the moment, our brain becomes less efficient over time and the pre-frontal cortex becomes compromised, ultimately affecting our memory. The gradual buildup of cortisol production impairs the hippocampus, which allows us to encode and recall memories. It would be like turning on and off a light switch non-stop—activating the power and shutting it off until the fuse blows from overuse.
Not-So-Obvious Contributors of Stress
We tend to realize when the big sources of anxiety or fear appear in our life. Obvious stressors like a move, a job loss or change, or financial concerns can cause angst. What we don’t often contribute as a source of stress is our attraction to novelty. The brain is constantly seeking out what is new or different in our environment. Perhaps that’s why we love to check-in with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other forms of social media. These updates continually capture our attention. Consequently, it can cause too much stimulation to our brain and create additional stress. Our brain has one operating principle. It keeps us alive by responding to either threat or reward. Our basic need for survival keeps our brain on the lookout for threats numerous times every second.
The other less obvious yet primary contributor to our level of stress is our thinking. Our thoughts create the chemical environment of our body. Negative thoughts can make your body chemically respond by producing cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine. Positive thoughts, on the other hand, can produce neurochemicals and hormones such as endorphins, oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin—often referred to as “happy brain chemicals”. Even re-living a positive or negative event in your mind can continue to produce these chemicals, and possibly help improve our memory.
Simply becoming aware of your thoughts can help you identify if you are creating stress or “happy” chemicals. This awareness can also help you combat negative thoughts by quickly acknowledging them and trying to put a positive light on the situation.
Sleep, nutrition and exercise help to reduce stress. Learning how your brain works can make you smarter and allow you to manage your response to stress in a productive and healthy way.
For more on the effects of stress on memory view this TEDEd video.