The Impact of Stress on Memory

Everyone has had a moment in their career where they are asked a seemingly simple question, and they cannot remember the answer. This often happens in front of a group of colleagues. You sit there racking your brain and often beating yourself up for not being able to recall an important detail when put on the spot. It is a frustrating and humbling feeling when your memory fails you. Why does this happen? While there are several causes of memory lapse, stress is one factor that significantly impacts your memory.

First, your brain has a more difficult time taking in information when you feel stressed. Remembering a piece of information relies on three steps: acquisition of information, encoding it, and then retrieving it, which all require different parts of the brain. When stressed, the brain releases corticosteroids, which signal the amygdala to tell the hippocampus to consolidate a memory. When the brain is constantly covered in corticosteroids, it impairs the hippocampus, inhibiting its ability to form memories. Therefore, we have a more challenging time converting short-term memories into long-term memories when we feel the effects of stress. As a result, if you are in a stressful situation at work, your brain might not be able to convert the information you acquired into long-term memories.

In addition, these high-stress situations inhibit the brain’s prefrontal cortex, causing you to draw a blank when asked to perform on a test for a designation or a high-stakes presentation at work. However, the prefrontal cortex also regulates your body’s flight or fight response, positively impacting stress on memory, depending on the situation. Stress can also lead to exhaustion. It is no secret that our working memory is not in an optimized state for attention or cognitive tasks when we are tired.

how stress affects your memory

Next, stress can impact our perceptions and, in turn, affect the memory of an event in which we were stressed or grieving. Think of a time you were in a stressful situation at work. Did you have a hard time recalling exact details of the situation later when you recounted the experience to a loved one? The stress you felt in the situation colored your perception and ability to recall what you perceived during the event. This explains why eye-witness testimony can be so unreliable. 

Finally, after they are formed, memories can change. When you retrieve a memory, it is colored with your current experience. Therefore, when you later receive misinformation related to something you experienced, you may create a false memory because the recent misinformation you received is easier to recall, tainting your memory of the event.

If you are experiencing significant amounts of stress, it is likely impacting your memory. The good news is there are plenty of strategies for coping with stress and improving your memory and quality of life. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Prepare- Take the time to get ready for important meetings, presentations, and deadlines. Coming prepared will keep you in a calm state of mind.
  • Be punctual- Running late will trigger that cortisol response, leading to feeling stressed and frantic. Arriving a couple of minutes early will allow you time to handle unexpected stressors.
  • Smile- Believe it or not, your nonverbal cues can affect your emotions. So put a smile on your face to convince the world (and yourself) that you’ve got this.
  • Take a deep breath- Increase the supply of oxygen to your brain to promote a state of calmness and relieve your feelings of stress.

If you are looking for a trusted advisor to learn from and guide you through reducing stress in your life, Dr. Geneva Williams, a certified life coach, is your answer. With years of experience, Dr. Geneva is committed to helping people stop worrying and create extraordinarily personal, professional, and community impact through self-development strategies. Reach out today to get started!

The Impact of Stress on MemoryThe Impact of Stress on MemoryThe Impact of Stress on MemoryThe Impact of Stress on MemoryThe Impact of Stress on Memory

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