How Stress Can Affect Your Memory

Dec 12, 2023

How Stress Can Affect Your Memory

As any high school or college student who’s “cramming” for exams can tell you, a little bit of pressure can be a great motivator. A lot of pressure, on the other hand, has the opposite effect — in fact, an inordinate amount of stress is more of an obstruction than an advantage. 

Just as chronically high stress levels can have a profound negative effect on your physical and mental health, emotional control, and interpersonal relationships, it can also undermine your brain function, memory formation, and recall. 

As a board-certified primary care provider who specializes in both preventive and functional medicine at Refine Medical in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Heather Kennedy, PA-C, and our team know that successful stress management is essential to optimal wellness. 

Let’s take a closer look at how stress can affect your memory — and what you can do about it. 

Temporary stress as a short-term memory aid

A little bit of stress is a good thing most of the time: Just as the stress of moderately intense physical activity makes your body fitter and stronger, the stress of learning something that’s different or difficult can lead to new knowledge and skills.  

To process, remember, and recall new information, your brain goes through four basic steps: acquisition, consolidation, encoding, and retrieval. Moderate stress that’s related to the memory task itself — like the kind that’s induced by an upcoming quiz — can serve to enhance brain function as it acquires, consolidates, and encodes the new data.

How? Moderate, momentary stress prompts the release of cortisol, which causes the amygdala (the part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) to tell the hippocampus (the part of your brain that learns and remembers) to consolidate a memory from the acquired information. 

Essentially, moderate stress signals to the brain that the information is worth encoding and remembering. As long as the stress is moderate and brief, the process isn’t impaired. 

How chronic stress impairs memory and recall

When you’re under intense or enduring stress, it’s normal to feel scattered, disorganized, and forgetful. This is because both intense short-term stress and a normalized chronic stress state undermine brain function on multiple levels. 

Intense stress effects

Intense short-term stress can interfere with: 

Memory encoding

If you’re highly stressed when you’re studying new material, your brain devotes more energy to its stress reaction — and becomes far less engaged in encoding incoming information. When your brain fails to encode properly, new info never transitions from your “working memory” to your “long-term memory.”

Memory recall

If, however, you’re highly stressed when you’re taking a test on material you learned with no trouble, your stress reaction may interfere with your brain’s ability to recall the information that it successfully encoded.

Chronic stress effects

Chronic stress has the same effects on memory encoding and recall as intense short-term stress, but comes with more far-reaching consequences. When feeling stressed is the norm rather than the exception, your brain is continuously bathed in stress hormones — causing your fight, flight, or freeze response to kick in.

Memory takes a back seat

Your brain can’t be in survival mode and memory mode at the same time, so when stress is a major player, long-term memory encoding and retrieval fade to the background. Essentially, all the energy that goes to your stress response leaves the parts of your brain that help to store memories and perform higher-order tasks with less energy to function.

Long-term brain changes

Besides making you more forgetful or even leaving you with memory lapses in everyday life, there’s evidence that chronic stress may rewire your brain.

Research shows that prolonged stress leads to increased activity in the primitive parts of the brain that are focused on survival, and decreased activity in the parts of the brain that handle higher-order tasks. Over time, chronic stress can actually shrink your hippocampus. 

The process is a lot like what would happen if you were to perform regular bicep curls with one arm but not the other: The muscles in your active arm would get stronger and more efficient, while those in your inactive arm would weaken and atrophy. 

Managing your stressors and stress reactions 

Luckily, there’s a lot you can do to gain the upper hand over chronic stress and improve your brain function, memory encoding, and recall. Successful stress management starts with taking stock of your major stressors as well as your stress reactions. 

Take time to observe how stress impacts your body, mindset, mood, and behaviors. Noticing how it affects you across these four key dimensions can inform your management approach as you work to establish greater control. Other helpful stress-reducing strategies include:

  • Establishing a more predictable routine
  • Getting enough sleep; exercising every day 
  • Reaching out for help when you need it  
  • Organizing a more manageable workflow 

You need some stress to grow and evolve, but you don’t need to live in an ongoing state of chronic stress that overwhelms your brain and undermines your health. If you’re ready to improve your stress reactions, we can help. Call 405-609-7369 or schedule a visit online at Refine Medical today.