When we’re stressed, if often feels like everything begins to fall apart. It’s during stressful times that we misplace our keys, forget important events on our calendars, fail to call our mothers on their birthdays and leave important work documents at home.
Now, in addition to your original stressor, you’re under more pressure because you’re scrambling to find lost keys, dealing with hurt feelings or frantically reconstructing forgotten projects.
And on top of that, when stressed, our emotions are running rampant. That scramble for the keys is anything but calm and a remark from your mother about that missed phone call can send you deep into guilt.
It’s easy to attribute these lapses in memory and emotional intensity to simple overload. When we’re stressed it’s typically at least in part because we’ve got too much going on and we just don’t have the capacity to keep up with everything.
Scientists have known what common sense tells us — that stress has an impact on memory and emotion. But it’s not just that we have a lot going on and aren’t paying attention. Stress actually has an impact on how the brain processes information and stores memories. And research over the last several decades has pinpointed changes in certain areas of the brain during times of stress.
Now new research, published in the Journal of Neuroscience builds on previous understanding of the brain. It suggests that dramatic changes that occur in the brain when under stress are linked to our emotions and scattered memory.
Chronic stress affects two important areas of the brain when it comes to memory: the hippocampus and the amygdala.
In this new research, electrical signals in the brain associated with the formation of factual memories weaken while areas in the brain associated with emotion strengthen.
So, according to these researchers, with increasing stress, our brains are wired to discount factual information and to rely heavily on emotional experiences.
“Our findings suggest that the growing dominance of amygdalar activity over the hippocampus during and even after chronic stress may contribute to the enhanced emotional symptoms, alongside impaired cognitive function, seen in stress-related psychiatric disorders,” the researchers suggest.
So when you’re under stress — like when you’ve forgotten that important work document and your boss makes a comment that causes you to turn to jelly inside — keep in mind that your brain is wired to highlight the emotional part of her message. The factual part of the message may be lost altogether, which can leave you both intensely emotional and failing to act on important facts.