Are you one of those people who say that they “work better under pressure” and find a little bit of stress to be stimulating rather than disturbing? Many people do find that the added adrenaline in a stressful situation can give them the energy they need to complete a project they’ve been putting off. However, even though your brain might function better in the short term, there are long-term effects to stress that harm both your brain’s ability to work and its ability to process and store memories.
When you’re under stress, your body produces hormones called adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline is what gets your body moving – it’s what saved your ancestors from being eaten by lions, giving them that extra bit of awareness and speed in the face of danger. If there is enough perceived stress (you’re still surrounded by lions!) then the adrenal glands begin producing cortisol instead, which remains in the brain tissue. When this hormone builds up, it impacts your ability to remember by altering the function of the hippocampus, the area of your brain where memories are processed. After all, if you’re surrounded by lions, remembering when your nephew’s birthday is becomes much less important. Unfortunately, memory also includes bits of information like “where the fire escape is” and people in very stressful situations may be in danger because the stress hormones are overriding their ability to recall necessary details.
This memory loss can take many forms. One form you’re probably familiar with comes under the general category of “stage fright,” where you’re in a position of great stress and unable to remember what it is you’re supposed to do or say at that point. Your mind actually seems to blank out, as if you’ve wiped a wet cloth across a chalkboard. Often, this is a temporary state, and you’ll suddenly recover and continue with your speech or task. Another example comes from more prolonged stress, for example in an emergency situation such as a car crash or bank robbery. If you’re a witness to either event and close enough to be emotionally involved, the hormones in your brain may prevent you from accurately processing details of the scene. This is why law enforcement tries to question witnesses to such an event as soon as possible afterwards, so that their already-stressed brains don’t lose even more memories.
In an emergency situation, it’s often hard to focus on relaxation, but for short- or long-term stress there are some useful ways to lower your emotional temperature and decrease the amount of memory-damaging hormones in your brain. Meditation and other relaxation techniques are good tools for helping you manage your instinctive response to stress or perceived threats. If you’re faced with multiple deadlines at work or school, try prioritizing them and eliminating anything that is not necessary to complete at that point. Adjust your schedule to allow yourself time to finish jobs before taking on more responsibility.
You can also take care of your brain and reduce your stress by getting enough sleep, and by getting enough exercise. Sleep will allow your brain to restore itself and finish processing information and creating memories, and exercise and deep breathing will send oxygen to your brain, an essential source of energy. Whether on a physical or mental level, taking care of your brain by reducing stress will help you keep your memories intact and readily accessible.
“A critical review of chronic stress effects on spatial learning and memory.” Cheryl Conrad, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry (2010).
“Protective and Damaging Efffects of Stress Mediators.” Bruce McEwen, New England Journal of Medicine (1998).