THE OPTIMAL LEVEL OF STRESS
Somewhere between mellow and meltdown is an anxiety sweet spot that sharpens memory. Find yours.
Research shows that, for women, acute stress can enhance memory. “But we don’t want you to say, ‘Stress is good, so I should seek it out,’ ” says Zhen Yan, Ph.D. “To boost memory, stress needs to be at some kind of an optimal level.” And that optimal level is different for each woman.
So how do you go about sussing out your stress sweet spot? The answer will require some sleuthing.
Keep in mind the inverted U function, in which memory sharpens as stress piles up until it reaches an in-the-zone peak before traveling downhill. That’s the balance you need to gauge for yourself. “If you are giving a speech and can still do it even when you’re having major symptoms–like nausea and loss of appetite–then that’s encouraging, and the anxiety should lessen with practice,” says Margaret Altemus, M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. “But if you’re trying to manage multiple tasks at once, such as filling out a form online, giving directions over the phone, and talking to a child, this amount of distraction is stressful and will likely impair your memory. The sweet spot is an optimal level of alertness, without feeling overwhelmed or anxious. That’s the rule to use in finding your stress balance: Look to see if the stress is impairing your functioning, including your job performance and your ability to enjoy life. If it is, try to reduce the stress with lifestyle changes, and if necessary, psychodynamic or cognitive behavioral therapy, or lastly, taking psychiatric medication.”
The great news, she says, is that with this kind of help, the intensity of perceived stress can be reduced. “I wouldn’t advise people to avoid stressful situations because they are worried about their memory performance,” she says. “These situations provide an opportunity to find better ways to cope.”