Understanding and Managing Stress-Related Memory Issues

April 24, 2024   •  Posted in: 

We all struggle with memory and focus to a certain extent at times. For example, it’s a common experience to forget the name of someone you just met or misplace your keys. Several factors can cause memory loss, but research shows stress can worsen it.

High stress can affect your brain in a way that makes it more challenging to learn and retain new information. While stress-related memory issues are usually temporary and reversible, keeping an eye on your stress levels is essential if you aren’t coping effectively.

Here’s what studies show about the relationship between stress and memory and when you should ask for help.

Defining memory

We all know what it means to remember something. But what, exactly, is “memory” from a psychological perspective?

Memory is a complex cognitive process that involves several parts of the brain, including the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex. Memory plays a crucial role in our daily lives and influences our ability to navigate the world[1].

Memory is much more complex than simply “remembering” things – it’s about how the brain encodes, stores, and retrieves information.

1 – Encoding

First, the brain needs to take sensory and other important information and convert it into a form that can be stored.

For example, let’s say you’re training for work. Your sensory organs (like your eyes and ears) take in information like what the PowerPoint visuals look like and what the presenter is saying. Your brain might also figure out what information is essential to remember and what can be tossed away – a process called selective attention.

You might also encode the training material more intentionally by practicing new skills or organizing the information in an outline. These are all examples of ways your brain could encode information to become memory.

2 – Storing

Your brain then stores the information as temporary sensory or short-term memory or transfers it to long-term memory. If not transferred to long-term memory, short-term memories only last around 30 seconds. This process happens through physical changes in the brain—neural synapses (the connections between neurons) get stronger and stronger through repetition. Sleep plays a critical role in consolidating long-term memory.

Taking the example above, you might read a complex technical term a few times to get it stored in short-term memory. But you probably will remember it quickly if it gets transferred to long-term memory through repetition, practice, and application.

3 – Retrieval

Lastly, your brain helps you access the stored information when needed. Memory retrieval is like trying to bring back information you’ve stored, like finding a saved file on your computer or searching through file cabinets. There’s so much information we take in every day. Retrieval helps you bring that information back into conscious awareness when needed for important tasks.

In the example above, retrieval would be remembering the information you learned in the training weeks, months, or years down the line when you need it in your job.

All three components are critical to how memory works, and stress can affect memory at every level.

What do studies show about the relationship between stress and memory?

Research shows how stress affects the brain and can impact memory and other critical cognitive functions. Short bursts of acute stress can sometimes enhance memory. But in general, stress – especially chronic stress – has been shown to contribute to memory loss.

How stress affects your brain

Many physical changes happen during your body’s stress response. One of these changes is the release of a stress hormone (chemical) called cortisol. Cortisol is one way your body prepares itself for the challenge in front of you.

The stress response involves a part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala is like your brain’s security guard — it helps you notice and react to things quickly, especially if they seem important or threatening.

When you’re under stress, the brain becomes very focused on the stressful situation. This intense focus helps you deal with whatever challenge you’re dealing with, but it also sometimes makes it tricky for your brain to pay attention to other things, like details or less urgent information.

The brain’s stress response isn’t a negative thing in and of itself. It was designed to be a helpful and protective mechanism that helps you stay ready and alert for dangers that may come your way.

However, if this stress response happens too often or for too long, it can affect memory and other brain functions. After a stressful situation, your brain needs time to return to its usual state. When this doesn’t happen, cognitive functioning can be impaired.

The effects of stress on learning and memory

Research shows that the relationship between stress and memory is complex. Studies have found that depending on the timing and the situation, stress can enhance or hinder memory. However, living under high stress, especially over long periods, can negatively affect memory and other cognitive functions.

A burst of moderate stress while you’re learning can help you in the encoding stage of the memory process, especially if the stressor is related to the memory itself. For example, if you feel a short burst of stress while studying for an exam, this could help you learn the information[2][3].

However, stress can negatively affect other memory processes, including consolidation and retrieval.

Consolidation, the process by which memories become stable against new information, is also vulnerable to stress. You might notice you easily forget unrelated information when you’re under a lot of stress. For example, if you’re stressed about work, you might easily forget details about your partner’s life. This has to do with stress’ effects on consolidation and how the brain prioritizes information relevant to the immediate threat at the expense of non-essential details.

Stress also impacts memory retrieval – the process of accessing stored information. Chronic stress, in particular, has been associated with more difficulty remembering specific details.

Using the same example, this means even if stress could have helped you prepare for an exam, if you’re stressed right before taking the exam, you’re less likely to remember the information you once learned[4].

Acutely stressful or traumatic events can also cause memory deficits. Research shows many people with PTSD find they have a difficult time recalling specific details about the traumatic event itself. But PTSD can also have negative impacts on overall memory, causing symptoms like general forgetfulness and difficulty with both short- and long-term memory[5].

Stress can also disrupt sleep, making the relationship between stress and memory even more complicated. Research has linked stress and sleep deprivation; you probably already know that stress can often make sleeping harder. These effects on your sleep-wake cycle can seriously affect memory consolidation, primarily during deep, restorative sleep stages.

Stress and dementia

Dementia is a form of memory loss that usually affects older adults. It’s an umbrella term that describes general age-related symptoms like memory loss, lapse in judgment, and loss of language (like forgetting words). Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most well-known causes of dementia.

Recent research suggests long-term stress may contribute to the development of mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease[6]. Stress can also contribute to depression, which has been linked to a higher risk of dementia. However, other studies have found stress worsens memory loss in older adults who are already experiencing mild cognitive decline but not in mentally healthy people[7].

Signs of stress-related memory loss

Everyone forgets things sometimes, especially as we age. But there’s no way to tell whether or not memory loss is “normal,” if it is related to stress, or if an underlying health condition causes it. Talk to a healthcare provider if you’re experiencing memory loss that hasn’t gone away.

In general, when experiencing stress-related memory loss, you might notice signs like:

  • Forgetfulness, such as struggling to recall recent events or people’s names.
  • Difficulty concentrating on tasks and maintaining focus.
  • Difficulty finding specific words you need.
  • Impaired decision-making.
  • Experiencing memory gaps or short blank periods (such as driving a familiar route home without remembering how you got there).
  • Misplacing items or forgetting where things are kept.
  • Inability to recall specific details of recent conversations or experiences.
  • Problems with learning new information, especially under stress.
  • Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or sleeping too much (parasomnia)
  • Physical symptoms like headaches, muscle tension, and fatigue contribute to memory issues.

When to seek help

Stress-related memory loss is often temporary and reversible. You might notice yourself getting more forgetful during times of high stress. But stress can also contribute to longer-term memory issues, including dementia. If memory loss is getting in the way of your daily life – for example, if it’s causing problems at work or in your relationships – then it could be time to talk to a doctor.

It’s important to note that chronic stress can also cause other serious health consequences, like high blood pressure, digestive issues, and a compromised immune system. If you’re having a hard time coping with stress, then mental health treatment can help.

Our multidisciplinary team at The Center • A Place of HOPE can teach you new skills to reduce stress and deal with stress-related symptoms, including memory loss. With our proven Whole Person Care approach, we will help you build new mental habits and ensure you’re eating nutritious meals, sleeping restfully, and strengthening your most important relationships.

Get in touch with us for more information about admissions.

1 – https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/how-memory-works
2 – https://www.jneurosci.org/content/43/43/7198
3 – https://www.nature.com/articles/npjscilearn201611
4 – https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fbul0000100
5 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9038970/
6 – https://alzres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13195-023-01308-4
7 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2864084/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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