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Stress Hormone May Prolong Distressing Memories

Stress Hormone May Prolong Distressing Memories

New research suggests the stress hormone cortisol strengthens memories of traumatic or scary experiences.

The hormone appears to influence initial memory formation and also affects subsequent memory reconsolidation that occurs when people look back at an experience.

The findings from cognitive psychologists at the Ruhr-Universität Bochum have been published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

They suggest that the results might explain the persistence of strong emotional memories occurring in anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Typically, strong memories of stressful experiences occur frequently, but they usually fade away over time. People suffering from anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder, however, are affected by terrifying memories that haunt them again and again.

Research has shown that the stress hormone cortisol has a strengthening impact on the consolidation of memories, i.e. the several-hour process in the course of which a memory is formed immediately after the experience.

The researchers from Bochum discovered that cortisol effects memories in humans also during the so-called reconsolidation, i.e. the consolidation of memories occurring after memory retrieval. They found that cortisol can enhance this process.

“The results may explain why certain undesirable memories don’t fade, for example in anxiety and PTSD sufferers,” said Prof. Dr. Oliver Wolf.

If a person remembering a terrifying event has a high stress hormone level, the memory of that specific event will be strongly reconsolidated after each retrieval.

In the study, researchers collected data from subjects on three consecutive days. Shira Meir Drexler, a Ph.D. student at the International Graduate School of Neuroscience in Bochum led the experiment.

On the first day, the study subjects learned an association between specific geometric shapes and an unpleasant electric shock. On the second day, some of the participants were given a cortisol pill, others a placebo.

Subsequently, they were shown one of the geometric shapes associated with the electric shock.

On the third day, the memory for the geometric shapes was tested. Participants who had taken cortisol exhibited strong memories of the fear-associated shape. Researchers found proof of this association as the subjects displayed a heightened skin conductance, an established measure for emotional arousal.

Source: Ruhr-University Bochum/EurekAlert

Stress Hormone May Prolong Distressing Memories

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Stress Hormone May Prolong Distressing Memories. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 2 Jul 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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