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How stress can mess with your memory

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How stress can mess with your memory nikkimeel - Getty Images

The words 'I'm stressed' are thrown around a lot. But while stress can sometimes feel like a non-tangible concept to those who aren't going through it, its repercussions can actually be quite serious – and can impact us both physically and mentally.

Stress-induced physical symptoms range from teeth-grinding to a lowered immune system, to an increased heartbeat and more, and can come and go – and your mental health can also take a hit too. So much so, in extreme cases, that scientists at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore even found (via a study in the journal Neurology) that stress not only leads to a decline in memory, but can make the brain physically shrink.

The research assessed more than 2,000 healthy, middle-aged participants, and found that those who showed high levels of cortisol in their blood (a hormone that's released following stress) gave poorer performances in memory tests. Further analysis revealed the brain volume of those with high levels of cortisol was also smaller than average, indicating a physical reduction in size of grey matter.

It's thought that one reason why stress can physically impact the brain is down to the 'fight or flight' bodily response that kicks in when cortisol is released: when cortisol appears in the body, so too does adrenaline, which is intended to power the body to either flee or defend itself in a dangerous situation.

As a result of these hormones being released into the system, non-imperative bodily functions such as digestion, reproduction and growth are temporarily suppressed. But when the body perceives continued stress, cortisol will remain at a high level, and the brain's function will be lesser than normal for a longer period of time.

While this study only offers a snapshot of the effects of stress at one point in time, and for the specific participants involved, it does remind us how important it is to reduce stressors in life if we can – and why it's so important to try and prioritise rest, exercise and reducing stressful factors (if we can).

Keen to learn more on how stress and anxiety can impact on your memory? We asked an expert for a deep-dive...

Can stress impact your memory?

Yes, in both the long and short-term, says Dr Sarita Robinson, Associate Dean of Psychology and Humanities at the University of Central Lancashire.

'In acutely stressful situations, we may not have the time to lay down new memories,' she explains. 'If you are trying to escape a burning building, your brain will be working hard to do all the decision making that is needed to keep you safe. There may be no processing power left in your brain to rehearse and store what has happened in your long-term memory. We have even seen situations where survivors of disasters have been found several miles away from the fire and don't know how they got there.'

As for longer-term stress (known as chronic stress), memory can be impacted as there's a link between chronic stress and 'depressive symptoms, which can impair our memory processes.' Dr Robinson adds, 'when we face chronically stressful situations, our brains can get tired. It is physically exhausting to be on edge and as a result, we can have a reduction in our ability to get on with everyday activities.'

Can stress and anxiety cause memory problems?

If you've ever dealt with the dreaded beasts that are stress and/or anxiety, then you'll know that as well as feeling panicky and strung out, it's not just your mental state that can be impacted – your quality of sleep can also take a turn.

'There are many ways in which stress can cause brain fog,' agrees Dr Robinson. 'If we do not sleep well, the glymphatic system [a system for waste clearance in the central nervous system] cannot switch on and remove the debris that's crossed the blood and brain barrier during the day. This is why we have brain fog after a sleepless night.'

She adds that stress can also increase inflammation, and this can cause the brain not to work properly, whilst simultaneously increasing anxiety and depression – a real vicious cycle – all of which can reduce memory processing too.

'Stress can also cause intrusive thoughts, known as worrying," the expert explains. "As the brain has a limited capacity, we might not be able to think clearly as our brains are filled with worries.'

How can you overcome memory problems caused by anxiety or stress?

Fear not, there are some really easy steps you can take to sharpen your memory – and unsurprisingly, the first one is to try and reduce the stressors in your life (if you're in a position to do so).

'Being resilient to stressful situations is challenging,' Dr Robinson sympathises. 'The first thing to do is review the situation that is causing stress. Is there anything you can do to remove the stressor? Some people will have the option to make big changes, such as leaving a stressful job, whereas others will not be in such a fortunate position.'

'But, of course, sadly some stressful situations may be impossible to avoid, such as the illness of a family member, and so we can turn to other methods to reduce our stress.'

She recommends engaging in self-care – something that comes in many different forms. For one person, this could mean unplugging from all their electronics, taking a long walk and then curling up with a good book. For others, it could mean getting stuck into a sweaty boxing class or venting to a mate, before taking a soothing bath.

'We can all engage in self care,' says Dr Robinson. 'We tend to take our mental health for granted, but we all need to actively work at maintaining a good level of mental wellbeing, in exactly the same way as we ought to take the time to look after our physical health.'

In a word, don't just wheel out the bath bombs and open up to a pal when when times are seriously tough – keep your mental state at the front and centre at all times, good or bad.

'To keep our wellbeing in check, and especially to look after our memories, we should also focus on our sleep and try to ensure that we get six to eight hours sleep a night,' Dr Robinson adds, noting that a 'nap is actually a good mental health intervention' (which is truly music to our ears).

Exercise is also important, she notes, in whatever form it feels best for you. 'High impact exercise outside in green spaces has been shown to be beneficial to mental health, and can also improve memory function,' the expert advises. 'Friendships are a key way to reduce stress levels, too. Everything is better when faced with a friend.'

If your memory problems persist, are severe or get in the way of your daily life, work or relationships, it's best to get booked in with your GP to discuss those symptoms (as there are other serious conditions associated with memory loss and forgetfulness). Same goes for your stress levels – listen to your body and any niggling worries you might have.

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