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

memory loss Aug 16, 2022
Woman who is stressed about memory loss holding her head in her hands

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.

What do studies show about the relationship between stress and memory? In this article you'll learn:

  • What is chronic stress

  • The long-term changes in your brain that occur from unmanaged stress 

  • Powerful stress management techniques to protect yourself from the damaging effects of stress

Read on to learn about the relationship between stress and memory loss.

Chronic stress and memory loss

Stress is inevitable throughout our lives. It's normal to feel stressed, in fact, stress can sometimes be positive, giving you just enough pressure to stay productive and helping you become more resilient in your day-to-day life. But when the stress is chronic, it can have a huge impact on your health.

Chronic stress scenarios:

  • Being pushed to your max in your career
  • Lacking work-life balance
  • Being a parent or a caregiver with little downtime
  • Being in a tense relationship 
  • Getting sick, injured or becoming unwell
  • Financial concerns stacking up

Everyone feels stress differently and will perceive stressful scenarios in their own way. Unfortunately, stress about memory loss can also feed into a chronic stress cycle.

The stress and memory loss cycle

Stress can cause or exacerbate memory loss. However, memory loss can also fuel stress, resulting in a self-perpetuating cycle. Stress can lead to memory loss - memory loss can lead to more stress - and the cycle continues. As a memory health coach, I see many clients that get stuck in this cycle. The key to breaking the cycle is through lifestyle management. 

Your lifestyle is a critical element that can hinder or help your memory and thinking. The way you eat, sleep, exercise, manage your stress and support your memory can all play a role in how well you combat the effects of stress and memory loss.

What do studies show about the relationship between stress and memory?

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. Basically, stress on your brain = increased inflammation. Chronic levels of inflammation can contribute to conditions like depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and dementia.

Stress management strategies to protect against stress and memory loss

Unfortunately, for most of us, we can’t banish the stress from our lives, no matter how hard we try to wish it away. However, there are effective methods for managing stress that can reduce the negative effects on your mind and body.

Strategies for stress management:

  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 every day. 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. 
  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.

Stress and memory loss, the bottom line

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 and combats long-term changes that can result in memory loss and other health concerns. 

As a memory health coach, stress management is a part of what I help my clients with. Especially due to the stress and memory loss cycle, in which you're stressed, you notice changes to your memory and the stress of those changes perpetuates the problem. If you need support on your journey back to clear thinking, I'd love to help. Use this link to schedule a free call to share your concerns and learn more about how I can help. 

*This post may contain affiliate links.

Questions? Contact Francine Here

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Meet the Coach

Hey there! I'm Francine, a speech-language pathologist turned memory health coach with a passion for helping you overcome your memory problems.

In my practice, I help women just like you trade memory problems for confidence and clarity everyday so you can think clearly and remember easily, without constant self-doubt weighing you down. 

If you're struggling with poor recall and foggy thinking, you're in the right place and I want to help you!


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