Sharon is a busy mother of four trying to cope with a thriving home-based consulting business while orchestrating her family's move across town. To add to her stress, her mother was just diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and needs lots of emotional support, and her husband has been having a rough time at his job. Lately, just as Sharon's legendary organizational skills are most needed, she can't seem to remember what she needs to do from one minute to the next. Important phone calls are going unmade, and assignments are falling through the cracks. She's missing appointments and losing her files. As the demands on her time and attention build, her ability to remember only seems to be shrinking. She's even beginning to wonder whether she herself is showing early signs of Alzheimer's disease.
Eventually, Sharon becomes so concerned she consults her doctor, who reassures her that her memory problems in this case are completely normal: She is under enormous personal stress, and that burden is directly affecting her ability to remember.
Without a doubt, one of the most common reasons that healthy people find themselves becoming forgetful is stress. And it's not just major, life-changing stress that affects learning and memory. Most of us never realize how much of a toll the day-to-day irritations, hassles, and annoyances can take. Whether you're a single parent, a young mom, a middle-aged dad involved in business and your son's sports team, or an established professional nearing retirement age, just getting through the day can present you with endless minor frustrations that can mount up exponentially. Whether the alarm doesn't go off...you can't find your best pair of pants...the children are fighting over the last waffle...you forget to refill the gas tank...your secretary calls in sick...the dog throws up on your expensive new rug...all of these seemingly minor problems trigger stress. How many of them there are, and how you react to them, can determine how they will ultimately affect your ability to concentrate and remember.
Oddly enough, short-term, mild-to-moderate stress can actually improve cognitive performance and enhance memory. The body's immediate reaction to a sudden stressor includes the release of hormones and other chemicals, including epinephrine (also known as adrenaline) and norepinephrine, that trigger the body's so-called fight or flight response and, in the short term, make you more alert and focused. To maintain this reaction beyond a few seconds, the body also releases glucocorticoid hormones (such as cortisol). A slightly elevated level of glucocorticoids appears to assist in the laying down of new memories.
Major or prolonged stress that goes untempered, on the other hand, can have a negative impact on memory and concentration. The continued release of and exposure to stress chemicals, with no down time, no chance for the body to return to a "stand down" mode, can take its toll on various systems and organs -- including the brain. Scientists haven't teased out all of the effects (indeed, memory, like so many other brain processes, is one of the least understood functions of the human body), but research suggests that major or ongoing stress and the high levels of glucocorticoids that accompany it have detrimental effects on an area of the brain called the hippocampus. Research suggests that the hippocampus plays an essential (although not yet fully understood) role in the creation of "explicit" memories-that is, memories of facts and events (as opposed to "implicit" memories, which include procedural memories, such as how to drive a car or ride a bike, that we are able to execute without consciously "remembering"). The negative effects of stress on the hippocampus appear to make it more difficult to create long-term memories and harder to access those that have already been formed.
Fortunately, high stress-hormone levels over the short term don't appear to do permanent damage to the brain. As your stress eases or as you employ coping techniques, you should find that your memory improves. On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that prolonged exposure to unmitigated stress may damage the hippocampus, making it less able to signal the body to turn off the stress hormones, leading to a vicious cycle of higher and higher stress-hormone levels and further decay of memory and cognition. In time, the hippocampus may actually shrink.
There's another reason why you may not remember so well when you are under a lot of stress, and it has to do with paying attention. In order to record information well enough to form a memory, you have to be able to focus on the subject you want to remember. Anything that interferes with your ability to pay attention, therefore, will impair your memory. When stress is severe or prolonged, it can monopolize your attention to the point that you can't concentrate on anything else. You may become so obsessed with or distracted by the source(s) of your stress that you don't pay attention to what you're doing and what's going on around you. You may function much of the time on a sort of automatic pilot, going through the daily motions but not really focusing on your actions, not paying attention to where you put down your glasses or your car keys, not absorbing what you're reading, etc. (Ever driven home distracted or upset after a stressful day of work and discovered, when you got home, that you had no memory of the drive itself and couldn't even say for sure whether or not you stopped at all the stop signs?) As the sources of your stress monopolize your thoughts, you simply don't record information the way you normally would, and if the information never gets properly stored to begin with, there won't be a memory there to retrieve.
So how do you improve and protect a memory that's being overwhelmed by ongoing stress? You must examine the sources of your stress, come up with plans to avoid or minimize those that you have some control over, learn how to alter your reaction to those that you can't eliminate, and develop some strategies you can use in your daily life to provide your body and mind with healthy breaks from ongoing pressures.
Stress-busting strategies are as varied and individual as we are. But you may be able to find some help developing your own through a class or workshop at your local hospital or community center. The following general suggestions may also help you begin creating a personalized stress-fighting plan:
- List as many of your stressors as you can, then determine if any can be eliminated from your life. Chances are, you have too many commitments and responsibilities, and if you think about what's truly important to you, you may find that some of those commitments can be dropped. Learning how to say "no" judiciously is one of the best stress-busting tools.
- Try delegating. See if you can minimize some of the stress you feel by asking for help or getting family, friends, or coworkers to take on a more equitable share of the load.
- Get organized. A fancy new electronic organizer or even a simple paper appointment book can relieve you of the burden of trying to remember appointments and events and can help you identify possible time conflicts before you overcommit.
- Make lists. Again, writing down what you need to remember or what you need to do can help unclutter your mind so you can pay attention to the task at hand. Make different "to do" lists for the day, for the upcoming week or weekend, and for the long term. Then use your lists to prioritize your tasks, so you don't waste time trying to remember what to do next or wondering what you've forgotten to do and you can be sure that your most essential tasks get done first.
- Cut yourself some slack. Wanting to do well is an admirable goal. Demanding perfection from yourself is not only unrealistic, it creates enormous pressure that can either paralyze you into inaction or drive you to the point of jeopardizing your physical and mental well-being.
- Learn to breathe. Throughout the day, try to pay attention to your stress level. Check for tightness in your shoulders, a furrowed brow, clenched teeth, etc. When you notice these physical signs that your stress level is high or growing, take a few deep, long breaths, releasing the air slowly after each. Such a simple, quick "timeout" can help stop the stress cycle in its tracks and help you to refocus your attention.
- Consider learning meditation, yoga, biofeedback, guided imagery, or progressive relaxation.
- Schedule at least some time every day for yourself. Take a relaxing bath, go for a walk, read a book, or just sit quietly somewhere away from everyone and from all your daily stressors. Try to clear your mind or, if you can't seem to do that, try picturing yourself in an enjoyable place or situation.
- Take up a hobby, craft, or sport. Focusing on something you enjoy, rather than on your problems, worries, or responsibilities, can give your body and mind the stress break they need and help lower levels of damaging stress hormones.
On the next page, learn about how exercise and fitness can actually improve you memory.
To learn more about the various aspects of memory, see:
This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.