How Stress Impairs Memory

By: Michael Lam, MD, MPH


Man scratching his head wondering how stress impairs memoryStress is the main culprit behind Adrenal Fatigue Syndrome (AFS), and it affects every component of the NeuroEndoMetabolic (NEM) Stress Response system that runs through our body. Slowly but surely, stress will shut down bodily functions until one’s quality of life diminishes and it eventually results in death. It is truly deserving of its name as the “silent killer”. But what many people do not know is that stress impairs memory as well. Studies have found that chronic stress affects both working memory and response inhibition.

The Science Behind Why Stress Impairs Memory

If you’ve found yourself under stress and feel as though you’ve become rather forgetful, you are not alone. Although memory loss could be caused by a wide variety of ailments, a new US rat study by Zhen Yan, PhD, at the State University of New York at Buffalo, discovered that stress impairs memory. When the rats were exposed to repeated stress, they had significant impairment of memory and cognitive processing.

The stress in the lab rats caused a deficit in the glutamate receptors found in the prefrontal cortex that controlled high-level functions like decision-making, working memory, and memory loss.

In humans, the prefrontal cortex is also associated with risk-assessment and reward, decision-making, compulsive behavior, and self-awareness. It is a highly sensitive area in response to repeated stressors.

How to Combat Stress

The answer to keeping your body healthy and your memory loss at bay could be as easy as relaxing, a major key in de-stressing your life. In fact, it’s very good for overall wellness and takes a lot less time than you’d think. It doesn’t require fancy spa retreats or expensive vacations. Relaxing is a retraining of your mind for the betterment of your body. Here are some very beneficial relaxation methods to use when stress impairs memory:

  • Meditation. Daily meditation has been proven to alter neural pathways in the brain helping people better cope with stress. It has been proven that a few minutes of practice a day can ease anxiety. One simple method consists of placing one hand on your stomach and reciting a positive mantra while syncing your breath with words like “I feel at peace.” The mantra may be recited silently to one’s self, or out loud, and all external and internal distractions should be ignored and pushed aside while the meditation is taking place.
  • Slow Breathing. Taking a 5-minute break to focus on adrenal breathing technique that can support healthy heart rate and lower blood pressure, therefore, countering the effects stress has on the body by way of sympathetic nervous system activation. With your eyes closed, slowly inhale through the nose filling the abdomen and bringing the breath up to the top of the head. Next, you’ll want to reverse the procedure and exhale through the mouth. Do not over-breathe in frequency or intensity if you are weak or fragile as crashes can be triggered.
  • Slow Down and Be Present. Focus on one thing at a time. Notice the wind, your feet hitting the ground, and the texture of your food. For five minutes, be fully aware of your surroundings. When you place emphasis on your senses, you will feel less tense.
  • Reach Out to Your Social Network. Feeling stressed? Talk to others. Face to face is best but the phone will work, too. You can get a fresh perspective, and reconnect with friends and family, which in itself often relieves stress.
  • Using Warm Compresses. Close your eyes and relax for 10 minutes with a warm heat wrap around your neck and shoulders. When you are done with this section, use a tennis ball or foam roller to give yourself a mini massage to reduce any tension that you may be holding onto. With your back against the wall, lean into the ball and apply pressure for up to 15 seconds.
  • Woman laughing to reduce the risk of stress impairs memory

  • Laughter. Laughing actually lowers cortisol levels and boosts endorphins. So, tune into your favorite YouTube videos, read the comics or find someone who makes you smile, and lighten your load mentally and physically.
  • Listen to Music. Research has shown that soothing music can lower blood pressure, decrease heart rate, and reduce anxiety.
  • Exercise. We are all familiar with this one. All forms of exercise can decrease stress, depression, and anxiety with the release of endorphins, the brain’s feel-good chemical. Even simple shoulder shrugs and head rolls, or stretching can help.
  • Practice Gratitude. Keep a journal to remember and remind yourself of everything you are grateful for. Fill up your journal with accomplishments, a child’s smile, a beautiful sunset, and anything else that brings joy to your heart. Gratitude cancels out negativity and worries. When you start to feel stressed, begin reading your journal notes.

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Improving Your Memory with Exercises

Keeping your brain healthy with exercises is just as important as maintaining an exercise regimen for your body. If you feel you’ve been affected by stress impairing your memory, you may want to set aside time to practice exercises that stimulate the brain and can improve memory. Stress impairs memory, but it doesn’t have to be a permanent ailment. Although a healthy diet and regular exercise are still two of the most important ways to keep healthy, overall, there are real-world brain exercises that work.

  • Drive home using a different route. So many of us go on automatic as we go through life completing mundane tasks. We must stop and recalculate things so that our brain can keep thinking.
  • Brush your teeth with your opposite hand. This is quite challenging but very beneficial in working the brain.
  • Open the morning paper and complete the word search, crossword puzzle, or Sudoku games. Even looking at the comics and taking notice of what is different from one photo to the next.
  • Practice your recall. Make a grocery list or things to do list and try to memorize it. In an hour, try to recall your list and see how many items you can remember.
  • Learn to play a musical instrument. Studies show learning something new over a long period of time is great when stress impairs memory.
  • Practice math in your head. It has even been suggested to walk while calculating the mathematical equations.
  • Learn to cook a new meal. Studies have concluded that using a number of your senses such as smell, touch, sight, and taste can positively trigger the brain when stress impairs memory.
  • Learning a foreign language and even increasing the vocabulary in your native tongue has been proven to reduce cognitive decline.
  • Word puzzle with pencil to reduce the stress impairs memory

  • Play word games. Think of a word, then visualize another word that begins or ends with the same two letters.
  • Recall a new place you’ve visited and draw a map of the area.
  • Take up a hobby that involves fine motor skills. Knitting, painting, drawing, and putting together puzzles are all great for when stress impairs memory. They not only stimulate the brain, but they are also calming and are known to reduce anxiety.
  • Change up your exercise routine and learn a new sport. Yoga, dance, golf, and tennis, all require mind-body coordination.

With all the evidence surfacing that stress impairs memory and other cognitive thinking aspects, it is predicted that brain health will soon be recognized as being just as important as heart health. Prevention and preventative measures will be taken to protect the brain and keep it active and healthy.

When to See a Doctor

Although stress impairs memory, it could also be a sign or symptom of other very serious conditions. It is important to speak to your doctor regarding any loss of memory to rule out additional ailments.

 
© Copyright 2014 Michael Lam, M.D. All Rights Reserved.


Dr. Lam’s Key Question

It has been proven that stress impairs memory and cognitive thinking, both of which can be very damaging if left unchecked. However, there are relaxation techniques that can help alleviate some of the incoming stress and exercises that can help sharpen the brain that are both beneficial in dealing with this ailment.


stress impairs memory