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How Stress Messes With Your Memory

  • September 2, 2011
  • 6:01 pm
  • 2 of 5

Then, on a hunch, Cahill’s lab decided to take a closer look at how sex differences might play a role in this long-established “safe general rule” and, surprisingly, discovered in one experiment that the rule did not apply to women. In that experiment, Cahill tested the memories of both men and women after an acute stress and found that the stressful event enhanced the memories of the men but did not do so for the women. (Yes, Denise Carleton’s killer recall seems to contradict this, but stay with us.) It was a puzzling finding: The levels of stress hormones were elevated equally in both males and females–so why didn’t it have the same affect on their memories?

Thinking that perhaps stress hormones were interacting with sex hormones, they ran the experiment again, this time using only women and controlling for various phases of the menstrual cycle. They discovered that when women had high levels of estrogen (before and during their periods), stress fuzzed up their recollection, but when they had high levels of progesterone, following their cycle, stress boosted recall–just like it did for guys. In other words, women received the memory lift that acute stress provides only when their estrogen levels were normal.

Cahill’s work was groundbreaking–and goes a long way toward explaining Denise’s peak performance in the doctor’s office (she was in that high-progesterone part of her cycle). It also explains why, on other days when she’s been pelted with curveballs, she’s been known to forget that she tossed her cell phone on the bumper of her truck or left a takeout pizza on the roof.

“Most of the research on stress and memory has been done in adult male humans, rats, and monkeys,” says Victoria Luine, Ph.D., a neuroendocrinologist at Hunter College in New York City, whose own work has since revealed similar findings. “Scientists have taken the male model and just assumed that females are the same. It’s a big assumption, and it’s wrong.”

Especially, it turns out, when it comes to the impact of chronic stress.

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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


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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