Stress can have both physical and cognitive effects. Here are 5 cognitive signs of stress and how this can affect you later in life.

Stress is a natural human response that we developed in order to be aware of, and protect ourselves from, danger.

Although it’s often painted as such, stress isn’t always a bad thing. In certain situations, it can help you have the energy or strength to face whatever challenge is coming your way.

But stress, especially chronic stress, can affect your cognitive functioning. Your brain needs to allocate resources to the stressful situation at hand, which can take energy away from other cognitive abilities.

Stress can have negative effects on your physical, mental, emotional, and cognitive health.

When we talk about the cognitive effects of stress, we’re referring to any manner in which stress affects your brain’s ability to complete tasks, both simple and complex.

Cognitive skills can include anything from solving problems to memorizing things.

Here are 5 specific ways that stress can affect your cognitive skills.


2017 research suggests stress can show up cognitively through your memory. Stress can affect your brain in a way that makes you more forgetful than usual or even misremember things.

This could be because your brain needs to allocate energy to other tasks during times of stress — leading you to absent-mindedly make careless mistakes.

The way your brain learns and remembers new information could also be affected by stress, according to a 2017 study.

Rigid thinking

2018 research claims that stress can also lead to more rigid thinking styles.

When you’re under stress, you’re more likely to make decisions out of habit. When you’re free of stress, your brain is more flexible, which allows you to make decisions based on your big-picture goals.

Difficulty with concentration

People who are under a lot of stress often have a hard time with concentration and focus. You might find that you can pay closer attention to the situation that’s causing you stress, but have a hard time concentrating on anything else.

If you’re highly stressed, you could find your attention wandering, even during important conversations and meetings.

Problems with focus could become so severe that they start interfering with your functioning at work or home.

Constant worrying

Stress also affects your thinking, and can cause worries to constantly run through your mind.

You might notice that when you’re facing high levels of stress, it’s difficult to stop worrying about whatever is causing the stress.

You could worry about the stressful aspects of work even when you’re not there, or worry about your relationship when you need to be working.

Poor judgment

Stress can cause you to make poor decisions, even if you typically have good judgment. The cognitive effects of stress could cause you to be more impulsive than usual or simply fail to think decisions through.

One 2012 study found that participants under stress were significantly less accurate in their professional judgments than the control group (who faced no stressor).

In a 2019 study, participants in the stress group were less likely to take action in moral dilemmas than the participants in the control group.

In general, stress can be divided into two types: acute and chronic.

Acute stress is what you feel when you’re faced with an immediate challenge. For example, you could experience acute stress while your boss is reprimanding you, but feel relaxed again after he leaves your office.

Chronic stress describes when people spend a long period of time under stress. Victims of childhood abuse are one example of a group who is at risk for chronic stress.

Other groups include:

  • political refugees
  • people who live in poverty
  • people who are victims of structural racism

Chronic stress can harm your health in irreparable ways. On top of the cognitive symptoms you might face at the moment when you’re stressed, chronic stress is also associated with overall cognitive decline and cognitive loss in late adulthood.

A large 2014 study shows that older adults who experience chronic stress are more likely to have lower cognitive functioning than other people their age.

This is true across diverse populations and may be even more relevant for oppressed and marginalized groups who are more likely to face systemic and community stress.

Studies have found that both African American and Chinese Americans elders with higher perceived stress are more likely to experience cognitive decline.

2019 research found that elders in the LGBTQ+ community are at higher risk for cognitive decline when faced with chronic minority stress.

A 2005 study examining the effects of early-life stress on rats found that even a short period of stress during the early years of life can cause deterioration of certain parts and processes of the brain (such as the hippocampus). This can then lead to cognitive disorders later in life.

Chronic stress is also associated with a higher likelihood of developing dementia.

Although researchers haven’t yet found a direct link between dementia and stress, a 2020 systematic review found that increased perceived stress is associated with a greater statistical risk for dementia. But further research is needed.

Because there are many factors involved in dementia, it’s hard to say if the elevated risk found in this study is due to stress or other factors.

Chronic stress can cause an inflammatory response, along with other biological changes, in your brain — which can lead to cognitive decline and even dementia later in life.

We don’t yet know exactly how stress contributes to long-term cognitive decline, but it’s likely related to how stress biologically affects the brain.

Some brain changes that could play a role include:

  • inflammation and post-inflammatory effects
  • damaged endocrine function
  • impairments to the hippocampus
  • stress hormones
  • changes in neural structure

If you’re under high amounts of stress, consider practicing self-care and speak with a mental health professional if needed.