Does stress affect your memory? – Elizabeth Cox
56 Comments


You spend weeks studying
for an important test. On the big day, you wait nervously
as your teacher hands it out. You’re working your way through,
when you’re asked to define ‘ataraxia.’ You know you’ve seen it before,
but your mind goes blank. What just happened? The answer lies in
the complex relationship between stress and memory. There are many types
and degrees of stress and different kinds of memory, but we’re going to focus on
how short-term stress impacts your memory for facts. To start, it helps to understand
how this kind of memory works. Facts you read, hear, or study become memories through
a process with three main steps. First comes acquisition: the moment you encounter
a new piece of information. Each sensory experience activates
a unique set of brain areas. In order to become lasting memories, these sensory experiences have to be consolidated
by the hippocampus, influenced by the amygdala, which emphasizes experiences
associated with strong emotions. The hippocampus then encodes memories, probably by strengthening
the synaptic connections stimulated during
the original sensory experience. Once a memory has been encoded, it can be remembered,
or retrieved, later. Memories are stored all over the brain, and it’s likely the prefrontal cortex
that signals for their retrieval. So how does stress
affect each of these stages? In the first two stages, moderate stress can actually
help experiences enter your memory. Your brain responds to stressful stimuli by releasing hormones
known as corticosteroids, which activate a process
of threat-detection and threat-response in the amygdala. The amygdala prompts your hippocampus to consolidate the stress-inducing
experience into a memory. Meanwhile, the flood
of corticosteroids from stress stimulates your hippocampus, also prompting memory consolidation. But even though some stress
can be helpful, extreme and chronic stress
can have the opposite effect. Researchers have tested this by injecting
rats directly with stress hormones. As they gradually increased
the dose of corticosteroids, the rats’ performance on
memory tests increased at first, but dropped off at higher doses. In humans, we see a similar
positive effect with moderate stress. But that only appears when
the stress is related to the memory task— so while time pressure might
help you memorize a list, having a friend scare you will not. And the weeks, months, or even years of sustained corticosteroids
that result from chronic stress can damage the hippocampus and decrease your ability
to form new memories. It would be nice if some stress
also helped us remember facts, but unfortunately, the opposite is true. The act of remembering relies
on the prefrontal cortex, which governs thought,
attention, and reasoning. When corticosteroids
stimulate the amygdala, the amygdala inhibits,
or lessens the activity of, the prefrontal cortex. The reason for this inhibition
is so the fight/flight/freeze response can overrule slower, more reasoned
thought in a dangerous situation. But that can also have
the unfortunate effect of making your mind
go blank during a test. And then the act of trying to remember
can itself be a stressor, leading to a vicious cycle
of more corticosteroid release and an even smaller chance of remembering. So what can you do to turn stress
to your advantage and stay calm and collected
when it matters the most? First, if you know a stressful
situation like a test is coming, try preparing in conditions similar
to the stressful environment. Novelty can be a stressor. Completing practice questions
under time pressure, or seated at a desk
rather than on a couch, can make your stress response
to these circumstances less sensitive during the test itself. Exercise is another useful tool. Increasing your heart
and breathing rate is linked to chemical changes
in your brain that help reduce anxiety
and increase your sense of well-being. Regular exercise is also widely
thought to improve sleeping patterns, which comes in handy
the night before a test. And on the actual test day, try taking deep breaths to counteract
your body’s flight/fight/freeze response. Deep breathing exercises have shown
measurable reduction in test anxiety in groups ranging from
third graders to nursing students. So the next time you find your mind
going blank at a critical moment, take a few deep breaths
until you remember ataraxia: a state of calmness, free from anxiety.

56 thoughts on “Does stress affect your memory? – Elizabeth Cox

  1. Check out this playlist to learn more about how stress affects your brain and body: http://bit.ly/2CjpKnu. Understanding is one way we can build #StrengthNotStress.

  2. Stress is the internal force acting per unit area..
    Three kinds of stress include tensile stress, bulk stress and shearing stress.
    I am a mechanical engineer

  3. I took a summer calculus class in June/July which stressed me out A LOT. I failed the class because I would instantly forget what I studied as soon as I got the test. Ever since then my memory has been worse. I forget everything now (everyday tasks, homework, names of the students at my job that I previously knew)

  4. Or, if you think you have a chronic anxiety disoder, go talk with a specialist. Having a problem and/or taking mental-health meds is NOT something to be ashamed of.
    Also: ataraxia SUCKS, you don't want it.

  5. No wonder I'm bad and in high school but good at college. those stressful schedules really wear a student down. who standardized that anyway? Its also true that when stressed your breathing becomes irregular, you can use timer to prove this yourself(I inhale quicker) Its better to "manually breathe" under stress.

  6. Most of the time when I'm stressed i can't even remember my best friends name, but I can remember random things that I haven't thought about in years that have nothing to do with my situation.

  7. I used to think very fast and remember things very well but the amount of pressure I was subjected into during university made it hard for me to remember things nowadays, which eventually affected my performance by the time I was about to finish school. It doesn't help that you're surrounded by the best and the brightest in the country too since you'd want to catch up with everyone. Even the people around me would notice that I would "lag" every time I spoke which they say wasn't like me at all since I always spoke "fluidly" in their terms, or at least I used to. These aren't the only bad things that happened though and up until now I'm still paying the price. I sincerely hope this doesn't happen to anyone.

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