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Why Your Stress is Hurting Your Memory, And How to Fix It

brain health memory loss stress Aug 16, 2022
Memory loss and stress

Stress is a regular part of life, especially these days.

Life moves fast and daily stress can pile on quickly. Insert additional factors like a worldwide viral pandemic, inflation, traffic, uncertainty about your health and the stress can feel relentless.

When you’re under a lot of stress, it’s common to feel disorganized or forgetful. Memory loss and stress go together like PB&J.

But long-term stress can change your brain in ways that affect your memory and thinking.

In this article we’ll discuss:

  1. Chronic stress and memory problems

  2. Long-term stress and brain changes

  3. How to protect yourself from damaging stress

A little bit of stress is normal, and it can even be positive, as you become more resilient in overcoming stressful events. But when the stress is chronic, it can have a huge impact on your health.

Read on to learn why your stress is hurting your memory and how to fix that.

Chronic stress and your memory

Are you constantly stressed out?

Maybe you’re a parent or a caregiver who always has to be “on,” or perhaps you have an overbearing boss at work, a tense relationship at home or you’re sick, you’ve gotten hurt, and your stress is stacking up.

Under chronic stress, your brain is continually activating your primitive, or survival brain (amygdala) and dampening your ability to think clearly (prefrontal cortex).

Our brains like patterns, in fact, we can rewire our brains with continued activation of a specific thought or habit pattern. This is known as neuroplasticity.

Rewiring your brain can be both positive and negative. It’s like what would happen if you exercised your right arm but not your left. Your right arm would continue to strengthen, and your left arm would get weaker.

Persistent stress may actually rewire your brain, leading you to strengthen the pathway that impairs clear thinking and memory.

This can lead to more mood changes and anxiety, which lend to difficulty staying focused and organized.

“Under chronic stress, you’re going to have a hard time thinking clearly,” said neuroscientist and author, Lisa Genova in her latest book, Remember: The Science of Memory and The Art of Forgetting.

“Even more concerning, if you’re under constant stress, you’ll start losing neurons in your hippocampus,” says Lisa Genova. Your hippocampus is a small area of your brain, responsible for memory formation and consolidation.

Your hippocampus can create new connections at any age, however, stress can damage this process, leaving you more vulnerable to memory loss.

She goes on to say, “Relentless, unmanaged stress is toxic for your body and brain.”

Long-term stress and brain changes

Persistent stress not only affects your immediate thinking and memory, but also leads to increased inflammation in your body.

Stress on brain = inflammation

Chronic levels of inflammation can contribute to conditions like depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

Protect yourself from damaging stress

Unfortunately, for most of us, we can’t banish the stress from our lives, no matter how hard we try to wish it away.

Here are some tips for how to better cope and control your stress levels.

  1. Establish control over your mental energy.

    Stress is inevitable and sometimes that stress occurs due to the sheer number of tasks we must manage each day/week. Outsourcing or releasing control of some of these tasks can preserve your mental energy. I provide my clients a strategy called the ADES technique. ADES stands for automate, delegate, eliminate, simplify. During sessions, we explore exactly how to implement this technique to reduce stress and improve attention. You can start using the ADES technique in your life, too. Be honest with yourself, can you part with some stressors? Automate some tasks? Leave room to explore these options.
  2. Practice mindfulness. 

    Mindfulness allows you to be more present in the moment, which can not only improve your attention for memory but can also decrease stress, improve sleep and exercise control.

  3. Get a good night's sleep. 

    Lack of sleep impairs your focus and attention; it also leads to higher stress on your body and cognitive functions. Aim to go to bed and wake up around the same time everyday. Your body needs 7-9 hours of sleep minimum. Less than that compromises your cognitive functioning and memory, among other things.
  4. Move your body.

    Regular exercise not only decreases your stress, but it also improves your memory. Physical exercise has been shown to stimulate the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, which as we know, is essential for memory. Additionally, lack of exercise has been linked to brain shrinkage, including in your hippocampus. So, get moving!
  5. Eat a brain healthy diet.

    Eating a nutrient deficient diet puts additional stress on your body and exacerbates inflammation. Focus on incorporating natural whole-foods into your diet. Foods that boost memory, like dark leafy greens, blueberries and other brightly colored berries, almonds and other nuts, fatty fish, olive oil and whole grains.

Memory and stress, final words

Stress impacts so much of our lives. And while we can’t always eliminate our stress, we can learn to manage our stress in a way that supports clear thinking.

If you found this article helpful, share it with a friend!

*This post may contain affiliate links.

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Meet your memory health coach

Francine Waskavitz, owner and lead coach at Longevity Coaching, LLC. is a memory health expert dedicated to helping you get your memory back, strengthen it and keep it healthy for a lifetime.

Her mission is to empower you to take early action to support your brain health so you can thrive in the life you’ve worked so hard to create, without memory loss interrupting your plans.

Francine has her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders and her Master of Science in Speech-Language Pathology (SLP) from the University of South Florida. She also attended the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) where she became an Integrative Health and Nutrition Coach.

Leveraging her expertise in memory from her 10 years as an SLP with her passion for health and wellness, Francine is dismantling the myth that memory loss is inevitable with age. 

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