Can stress affect my memory?

Animals Therapy for Stress

What is Stress?

 It is clear, we are stressed. In 2019, a poll found that over 55% of Americans reported experiencing stress frequently during their day and the effects of stress can be quite impactful. Stress not only affects adults but also high school students and children. 

The body’s response

Research shows that stress increases the activity in the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, causing a release of corticosteroids in the adrenal cortex. The adrenal cortex is the gland in the human body that helps your body with many things including its response to stress. The symptoms of stress range from anger, fatigue, anxiety, depression, upset stomach, tension, weight changes, heart disease, diabetes, and forgetfulness. 

Personality, Age, and Gender

However, in terms of predicting a stress response, evidence points to three factors that may predict who could be impacted greater. The three factors are a number of personality traits, gender, and age. It is important in evaluating each individual to consider the other factors that may have a role in the overall response. Who is at most risk for high rates of stress? Women, minorities, single parents, and family caregivers are found to be those at most risk.

One thing is clear, stress does impact memory, in both humans and animals.

Types of Stress

What is Acute Stress?

Acute stress is what most would call a typical stress event i.e.; running late to an important meeting, getting stuck in bad weather, etc.

What is Chronic Stress?

Typically, stress lasts for a short period of time, however, if our body does not find reprieve after some time and our stress response is still activated, this can lead to Chronic Stress. Chronic stress can greatly impact health. When stress hormones are released over a prolonged period of time, it can cause high blood pressure, type II diabetes, anxiety, and depression.

The Journal of Neuroscience published research studying the effect of chronic stress and memory loss in mice. What they found was quite revealing. During the study, the mice were repeatedly put into stressful confrontations, within 28 days the mice displayed obvious signs of depressive behavior. When they looked closer, they discovered changes in the brains of the mice indicating that the brain had become inflamed because of the way the immune system had reacted to the stress.

How does stress affect memory?

Stress and memory retrieval

Have you ever found yourself having trouble remembering certain things when you are under stress? Researches have studied this question and have found interesting results. In one study, researchers found that stress did indeed affect memory in participants. Specifically, they found that stress impacted declarative memory by temporarily blocking memory retrieval. 

Stress and Learning

Interestingly enough, stress also impacts our ability to learn. In one study, forty-eight participants were put in a stressful situation while they learned words. They found that those who were placed in a stressful situation had more difficulty with recall and recognition than those who were in the control group.

Ways to reduce stress

Get your sleep

Sleep is your body’s reset button. Research shows that those who sleep less than eight hours per night are more likely to feel angry, overwhelmed, lack energy, lose patience, skip exercise, and feel an overall increase in stress than individuals that get at least 8 hours of sleep per night.

Ask for help

It is okay to ask for help if you are struggling. You can reach out to a family member or a friend. If that isn’t possible, visit your GP for a check-up, or locate local mental health professional. For guidance in the United States, NAMI is a great resource.

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

Try progressive muscle relaxation. This breathing technique can help reduce stress, muscle tension, and anxiety. To get started, breathe in and tense a muscle group for about 10 seconds (clench your hands for example) when you breathe out, completely relax that muscle group. Wait another 10 seconds before you move to your next muscle group. Hot tip, if you are having trouble sleeping at night, try this while you are laying in bed working through all the muscle groups! For more information and directions.

Move your body

The consensus is, exercise is good for stress. But why? And how does it work? When we exercise our body releases chemicals and hormones, the same way it does when we are stressed. However, the chemicals that are released when exercising are considered our body’s natural way of killing pain. We call these endorphins and they are responsible for what people call a “runners high.”

Hang with a pet

A favorite and fun way to reduce stress is to spend time with your furry and feathered friends. Studies confirm that when humans spend time with animals they benefit from a reduction in the stress-related hormone, cortisol.  Don’t have a pet? Try your local shelter and volunteer as a companion.