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How Stress Messes With Your Memory

  • September 2, 2011
  • 6:01 pm
  • 1 of 5
How Stress Messes With Your Memory

Researchers are just now beginning to uncover the thorny relationship between mental pressure and recalland their findings have special significance for women.

By Gretchen Voss, Women’s Health

Everyone has had an experience like this one: You’re running late for an important meeting, frantically tearing apart the house on a desperate search for the car keys you just put down… somewhere. Or at the other extreme, you spent weeks freaking out over an upcoming presentation only to deliver all the key points with Oscar-accepting eloquence when the day arrives.

So what is it that makes a person either go completely blank or perform brilliantly on simple tasks involving memory when feeling stressed?

Quick and easy ways to stress less.

The answer is complicated, and neuroscientists are finally teasing out some of the bigger mysteries behind how that three-pound mass of electrochemical soup remembers, or forgets, where the damn keys are. An old adage says a little stress is good for memory, and a lot is bad–but it turns out to be true only for men. New research suggests that gender matters when it comes to memory and stress, whether that stress is acute, chronic, or traumatic.

Acute Stress

“Your son’s test came back, and it’s irregular,” the doctor told Denise Carleton, then a stay-at-home mom in Mill Valley, California. After hearing those alarming words, the 36-year-old nearly fainted as her body crashed over with waves of stress and fear. For the past month, she’d worried that her 2-year-old was regressing on all of his developmental milestones, such as talking and walking. But she never suspected that he could have a serious medical problem.

Initially, she could barely hear the rapid-fire questions the physician blasted at her. But then she snapped to, answering in detail about when he first walked, talked, and smiled; the dates of his last vaccinations; and every symptom over the past month. “In the midst of this incredible stress, I suddenly remembered everything,” she says today. “Stuff that on a normal day I would be hard-pressed to recall.”

Try these stress-busting foods.

Being able to remember things and learn new info depends entirely on the ability of networks of neurons–mostly in the areas of the brain called the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus–to communicate with one another. Picture each neuron as an old-fashioned telephone, but with multiple wires snaking out from the receiver. Some of those wires are called axons, and they intersect with other wires called dendrites at connections called synapses.

The brain creates and retains memories in part by growing thicker, more efficient communication lines between groups of neurons–basically, by hooking up the phone wires and keeping them on a biological speed dial. When you try to remember when your son first smiled, says Todd Sacktor, M.D., a professor of neurology at the State University of New York Downstate College of Medicine, the phone lines should start buzzing with activity, connecting the neurons that hold those memories. Ah, he was 4-months-old and reaching for his favorite teddy bear.

6 Strategies for all-day calm.

But then you hear that your child might be really sick. Immediately, the fight-or-flight sympathetic nervous system unleashes stress hormones, such as epinephrine and cortisol, into the “phone” system, generally making the connections crisper and clearer. The result: “As a safe general rule, a moderate to strong amount of acute stress–stress that happens once and then goes away–tends to be good for memory,” says Larry Cahill, Ph.D., a professor of neurobiology and behavior at the University of California at Irvine. Over the years, research has backed something called an inverted U response, meaning that as stress levels increase, so does memory performance–up to a person’s own optimal level of stress. Add more than that and memory function fizzles.

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Rodale

Rodale.com is a new original source for daily news, information, and advice on personal and environmental health. Rodale.com focuses on “Where Health Meets Green” topics, providing daily news stories and breaking news along with easy-to-follow, high-impact tips and advice.

234 comments

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10:58AM PST on Jan 2, 2012

Some people work great under pressure, while others can't function at all.
We have to know ourself, and deal with it how ever necessary.

12:09PM PST on Dec 17, 2011

This really hit home. I've been told that I have chronic depression and have taken meds for it, and I know that events in my life have led to this. I was also told that I have PTSD but could not understand how since I've never been the military or a severe accident etc. But this article talks about trumatic stress and includes a a definition of a threat to one's intergrity, characterized by intense fear and helplessness. I have felt this. This is what happened to me when my supervisior(principal) started focusing on me and picking out anything and every little thing she could and sharing with the staff of the school I was teaching at.( At the time I didn't know sharing part.) She also started giving me not so good yearly evaluations. I had had ALWAYS had real positive evaluations wherever I worked before. I had taught 22 years and was the first in my whole family who went on to college and had a degree. I wasn't SUPER INTELLIGENT but my counselors in high school and college believed that I would make a great teacher, they believed in me. I wasn't perfect but I always felt like I had an understanding, empathy and was very intuitive with children especially. Parents were happy, some really thankful children were in my class. But of course the principal found two sets of parents who 'weren't sure' this one year. Anyway, to make this short, I am a very emotional person I 'feel' everything. With the death of my parents and a stepfather (all of cancer) just a few year

12:42AM PDT on Sep 12, 2011

thanks

8:33PM PDT on Sep 8, 2011

Thanks to Jane Barton for the Green Star.

1:32AM PDT on Sep 7, 2011

I have experienced memory problems since my brother died. Years later I am still struggling with it. Good article. It is good to know someone is looking into it.

9:58AM PDT on Sep 6, 2011

I must be an exception because I have never experienced any form of memory during any kind of stress. My memory takes a leave of absence when I am stressed. I've currently been chronically stressed and my memory is shot.

9:42AM PDT on Sep 6, 2011

I am aware of how bad stress can be on your memory. Work has been stressful as people scramble in fear of being fired they begin to stab one another in the back. Coping with paranoia & going home to a stressful situation has made me notice that I forget to do minor things. I have to meditate & work out more just to cope. Still, it isn't enough to handle it all. I am not just forgetting little things but now my energy is draining.

2:27PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

I had unbearable stress every day for 13 years while I cared for my husband who was slowly dying of chronic progressive MS. When I tried to talk to a doctor or insurance claim adjuster about this, because I needed help, they would tell me something to the effect and once exactly, "we all have our crosses to bear". Well, he has been gone for 7 years now and I still feel like my brain has been pithed. Thank heavens I left the U.S. and now live in Canada where they have dx'd me as having post traumatic stress syndrome due to what I went through for 13 years. Ironically, the health care system in the U.S. creates so much stress, that this is what happens to people. I still find it unbelievable that the people of the U.S. did not riot and demand a single payer system like Canada's when they could have.....well, they still should. If they don't, they deserve all the stress that it causes.

In summary, they don't need to experiment with animals to see what stress does to people, just talk to long term care-givers in the U.S.

2:25PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

stress kills period!

1:30PM PDT on Sep 5, 2011

Stress is a mind and body killer. It can I believe cause all kinds of problems...

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Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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