Long-term stress leads to elevated stress hormones that may impact areas of your brain responsible for memory and focus.
When students study for an exam, the stress of performing well may be motivating initially. But experiencing that stress for too long could have an impact physically and mentally.
During stressful situations, it can be difficult to create short-term memories and make them long term. It’s hard to remember information while stressed.
Chronic stress can alter the parts of the brain responsible for forming and recalling memories.
Stress can have positive and negative effects on memory. The difference lies in short-term or long-term stress, known as chronic stress.
“Short-term stress can help us with focus, energy, and attention,” says Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a psychologist and the media adviser for Hope for Depression Research Foundation.
“It can help us get things done. This type of stress is useful for our survival as human beings. It can also positively contribute to our memory as this type of stress can enhance our attention and focus,” he says.
Our bodies are so good at helping us survive that they will adapt to our stressors, Lira de la Rosa says.
When you experience these stressors, your body shifts into a fight, flight, or freeze response, a physiological reaction to something your body has perceived as a threat. In these moments, our goal is to survive the situation at hand.
Lira de la Rosa also explains that our bodies can habituate to stress, and we may not be aware that our baseline has shifted to a chronic stress response.
During a chronic stress response, areas of the brain can be overstimulated, which can cause a person to forget what happened.
It explains why we may have difficulty recalling events when experiencing chronic stress. We may also have trouble focusing and remembering things over time.
“When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that can interfere with your hippocampus’s ability to create new memories,” says Valentina Dragomir, a psychotherapist and founder of PsihoSensus. “Chronic stress can shrink the hippocampus, a brain region critical for memory formation.”
During stressful times, there are numerous things you can do to improve your memory. Stress can affect everyone differently, but various coping strategies may help you based on your unique experience.
Consider speaking with a healthcare professional who can support you in finding strategies that best fit your needs. The following are some suggestions to consider.
Try taking inventory of how you respond to stress
Lira de la Rosa recommends that you observe the following:
- Examine what effects stress has on your body (physical sensations), such as headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, etc.
- How does stress impact your mindset (thinking), such as difficulty with focus, prioritizing, forgetfulness?
- Note how stress impacts your mood. Are you feeling irritable, sad, anxious, angry, emotionally drained?
- Examine how stress impacts your behaviors. For example, do you find yourself always in a hurry, eating too fast, not taking breaks, etc.?
Once you take inventory, you might begin to notice how stress impacts you across these four dimensions. This may help you address these areas to reduce stress and help with your memory.
Try this to-do list exercise
“When we’re stressed, we may not be able to get things done because we feel overwhelmed. Or perhaps we may not be able to focus and concentrate due to the negative impact stress has on our memory,” Lira de la Rosa explains.
Consider the following to-do list exercise to help you prioritize the most important tasks to you.
Divide your to-do list into A, B, and C sections.
- In the “A” list, write down the most important tasks that should be done soon.
- In the “B” list, write down the less important tasks that can be done later.
- In the “C” list, write down the least important tasks that can be done quickly and easily.
Work through the A, B, and then C tasks in order.
Consider having a separate sheet of paper and keep track of distractions that may arise. Every time you’re distracted, write down the distractions on this sheet.
Once you are finished with your A, B, and C tasks, you can then add the distractions to your to-do list. This to-do list can help with your memory, especially if you find yourself easily distracted and forgetful when trying to accomplish tasks.
Consider prioritizing time to care for you
When we’re stressed, exploring what fills our cups can help us cope with stressors. Consider thinking about what helps you feel recharged.
If you like, you can write down the activities that recharge you and observe how engaging in these activities makes you feel. This exercise may help improve your memory and reduce your stress.
You may also consider breaking it into different categories, such as:
- leisure time
Try eating a balanced diet
Taking care of your body is essential. Consider incorporating stress-relieving foods into your daily meals to help you manage your stress levels.
“Make sure that adequate nutrition is being consumed,” Dragomir recommends. “This is how you support your body with enough nutrients that are also useful for memory and cognitive function overall.”
Consider practicing healthy coping mechanisms
When you’re feeling overwhelmed by stress, it can be hard to focus and think about anything else. An effective way to reduce your stress levels is to practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation.
“Relaxation techniques decrease overall levels of stress,” says Dragomir. “So, when you feel stressed, breathe. One very popular breathing exercise is to inhale through your nose counting to 4, and exhale through your mouth counting to 6.”
Try to get more rest
It may be difficult to concentrate and remember things when you’re tired and don’t get enough REM or deep sleep.
“Getting adequate sleep will help improve your focus and memory recall. An average of 8 hours of sleep per night is recommended for best results,” Dragomir states.
The relationship between stress and memory can be complex. While experiencing mild stress can work in your favor — helping you store and retrieve information — too much stress can impact your memory and focus.
Still, the effects of chronic stress on the brain can be mitigated with stress reduction techniques. Taking care of your body with proper nutrition and rest and taking care of your mind with relaxation techniques can help with cognitive function and memory recall.
You may also consider online therapy or mental health apps to discover ways to be supported during stressful times.