Effects of Stress on Memory and Cognitive Functions

Having a well-functioning memory is something we may think about more and more as we age. Memory and other cognitive processes can gradually diminish as many grow older, but research in the last several decades shows those who experience persistent or high levels of stress are especially vulnerable.

The negative effects of stress on memory and other cognitive functions has been widely explored for decades in numerous research projects using a wide range of methodology.

  • A study out of the Netherlands published in 2007, “The effects of cortisol increase on long-term memory retrieval during and after acute psychosocial stress,” examined short- and long-term memory.

Students were tasked with retrieving/recalling emotionally negative and neutral word associations in this study, which is referenced by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Biotechnology Information website. The 70 male participants learned some of the words one day before the tests and other words five weeks earlier.

“Within the stress condition, retrieval of negative words, 5 weeks after learning, was impaired both during and after the stress task, compared to the control group,” the researchers wrote.

  • In another study, cited by Prevention magazine, German scientists conducted two separate experiments in which 60 participants were subjected to mild forms of emotional and situational stress. The results showed that “women who were stressed took 10% more time to recall recently learned information.” The reason, the article explained, is because the hormones, cortisol, often referred to as the stress hormone, and noradrenalin, flooded the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which controls working memory, where new information is processed and retained.

“Our ability to focus, concentrate and remember has a lot to do with how much emotional stress we are experiencing,” write the authors of the booklet, HeartMath Brain Fitness Program, newly released. “Emotional stress has a major impact on our immediate and long-term cognitive functions, and underlies many of the mental health problems in society today.”

Keeping Your Brain Fit with Positive Emotions

Even as research has intensified recently on how and why cognitive abilities, especially memory, deteriorate with age, so too has the quest to preserve these vital processes for as much of our lives as possible. With stress identified as a primary contributor to memory and other cognitive impairment and low heart coherence, reducing and controlling unhealthy stress levels is a major focus of many research organizations, among them IHM.

IHM’s intense focus on optimal function research led its researchers to make an important finding: Intentionally invoking positive emotions is one of the fastest and most effective ways to reduce unhealthy stress.

“Research has shown that sustained positive emotions lead to a highly efficient and regenerative functional mode associated with increased coherence in heart-rhythm patterns and greater synchronization and harmony among physiological systems,” Institute of HeartMath Director of Research Dr. Rollin McCraty writes in his paper, Heart Rhythm Coherence – An Emerging Area of Biofeedback.

One of the most powerful and effective of the positive emotions is appreciation, HeartMath researchers found. Heart-monitoring technology such as an electrocardiogram or HeartMath’s emWave® Desktop to measure heart-rhythm patterns typically displays a nearly instant transformation from erratic to smooth patterns when a subject intentionally experiences appreciation. Smooth heart-rhythm patterns indicate lower stress and greater heart coherence and thus a range of psychophysiological benefits that include improved memory, focus and immune system among many others.

IHM researchers have conducted many trials in which participants realized significant reductions in stress levels and improvements in cognitive functions by intentionally feeling other positive emotions such as care, compassion and love.

In tandem with its research into the effects of stress on emotions, HeartMath has developed and continues work on a variety of tools to help people reduce stress. Hundreds of thousands of people have used these tools, among which are the Neutral, Quick Coherence® and Heart Lock-In® techniques.

All of these tools are designed to reduce stress by raising heart coherence. IHM researchers have found this to be highly effective, even in the moment, at restoring both a physical and psychological sense of balance and calm, much like meditation.

A new approach to dealing with stress. Transforming Stress eBooklet and audio gives you the now-how to transform stress. Click here for Free your download Transforming Stress eBooklet and audio.



DJ M1 years ago

intentional appreciation - a wonderful attitude to cultivate and practice! thank you

Magdalena J.
Past Member 2 years ago

Thank you!

Magdalena J.
Past Member 3 years ago

Thank you!

Jane Gardner
Jane Gardner3 years ago

I totally agree with this article as I'm just back on my blood pressure pills and the difference in my thinking is amazing. I'm a lot clearer in my thinking now. So yes, stress on the brain does affect it.

Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long & prosper!

Chloe R.
Chloe R3 years ago


Jess No Fwd Plz K.
Jessica K3 years ago

Makes a lot of sense to me, and probably also contributes to the reason why people have trouble remembering traumatic events. Thanks.

Nicole W.
Nicole W3 years ago

thank you for posting

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago


Melania Padilla
Melania Padilla3 years ago