What are the effects of stress on memory? Can it have both a negative and positive impact? Here we look at what the research tells us.

At first thought stress doesn’t help with our performance. We have all experienced the stress of nervously fumbling through our papers just prior to an important presentation, trying to find the first page! Then on the flip side, a touch of stress can at times seem to help us perform better.

How stress affects your brain

When you are psychologically or physically stressed, your body naturally releases the hormone cortisol into your blood. You may recognize this as your “stress hormone.” And it’s the adrenal cortex in your brain that produces this hormone. The normal response here is to bring your internal balance back to homeostasis after you experience stress.

Cortisol also affects your immune system function, regulates blood pressure, and influences your body’s inflammatory response. Cortisol is also interconnected with the release of numerous substances in your body such as sodium and water balance, potassium, gastric secretion, amino-acids and insulin.

The effects of stress on memory

Acute stress is when your brain produces cortisol for a set period of time.

This type of stress often has a positive effect on your memory. Not only does it cause cortisol release but adrenaline release as well. This creates strong memories for any emotionally stressful event you experience. For example, you probably remember where you were vacationing a few years ago when your house was broken into while you were gone.

Chronic stress is characterized by elevated bouts of cortisol release over a longer period of time.

This type of stress negatively affects your body, resulting in conditions such as high blood pressure, weakened immunity, decreased inflammatory response and weaker bones. It can also negatively influence your cognitive capacity.

One of the effects of stress on memory is that longer term exposure to cortisol can damage the cells in your hippocampus, a structure in your brain essential to form new memories.

Problems with your memory and thinking ability can therefore be the result of chronic stress.

A study in 2005 by Lucien and colleagues reported memory problems and a smaller volume (14% decrease) of the hippocampus of older adults who were exposed to increased amounts of cortisol for a long period of time.

Stress solutions

Numerous quantitative tools are available to measure your stress level. When you are feeling anxious, moody, or can’t control your emotions, you are likely in a high-stress situation. Your goal should be to recognize this and try to regain homeostasis. A few solutions are:

  • Exercise to release your ‘feel good’ endorphins
  • Deeply breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth a number of times
  • Ensure you are getting adequate sleep so your serotonin levels are more likely to be regular
  • Focus on the positive
  • Socialize
  • Take control of your life by setting goals and devising a plan to reach them

Last Reviewed 20/Feb/2017


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