A little stress can be a great motivator, as any student can tell you. A lot of stress, however, can often create more of an obstacle than a benefit. This is true when it comes to many things, including health-promoting behaviors, relationships, and even our memories. Stress can inhibit the way we form and retrieve memories and can affect how our memory works. Fortunately, there is good news here to balance out the bad. Here is what research tells us about the effects of stress on memory.
Stress can affect how memories are formed. When stressed, people have a more difficult time creating short-term memories and turning those short-term memories into long-term memories, meaning that it is more difficult to learn when stressed.
- One of the most interesting findings was that stress could impede the formation of memories if it occurred prior to or during encoding, the time during which the memory is formed. The good news is that there was a short delay between encoding and the formation of memory. Also, if the material being learned was directly related to the stressor, memory actually improved. Even better, post-encoding stress actually improved memory formation and retrieval as well, meaning stress that occurred after the memory was formed actually led to better memory-making.
- Stress increased cortisol, but the amount of cortisol was not directly related to the effects of stress on memory. This means that if you create more cortisol during your stress response, this won’t necessarily mean that your memory will be more impaired than someone who is less hormonally-responsive. Interestingly, women who were on oral contraceptives experienced less of a negative effect.
- Stress can also lead to exhaustion, and this can lead to cognitive impairment that includes issues with attention and working memory. Unfortunately, memory impairment can still be detected three years later, even after the exhaustion has been addressed. This underscores the importance of managing stress before it gets to this point.
There are several things you can do to improve your memory when stressed. Fortunately, these techniques also help manage stress. One of the most important things you can do is to practice personal self-care: get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, and manage stress.
There are other important strategies you can use as well. Here are some research-backed strategies you can use:
- Train yourself in breathing exercises and other techniques. One study of police cadets in training has found that psychological performance training can improve the recall of cadets who experienced stress compared to those who didn’t learn and practice these techniques. The techniques that were used included breathing exercises, a popular stress management technique; mental performance imagery, which involves vividly imagining practice and success; and attentional focus. This means that, when stressed, you can focus on breathing and focusing your attention, as well as vividly imagining yourself reaching your goals; this has proven benefits.
- Get moving. A study that examined the effects of an aerobic exercise program on memory-impaired people found that a 12-week exercise program indeed improved their memory over those who didn’t enroll in the program. The subjects involved in the study were experiencing mild cognitive impairment from the effects of stress-related exhaustion, so these results are especially relevant for those who are stressed.
- Practice mindfulness. Another study examined the fact that those who experience stress and memory issues often experience sleep problems as well. It was also observed that those who practiced mindfulness often experienced less stress and fewer memory issues. It was finally determined that mindfulness actually minimizes the sleep problems that can affect memory and create problems. This also demonstrates that practicing mindfulness can help with your memory not only by minimizing the stress that can be impairing it but by enabling better-quality sleep as well.
- Learn some tricks. There are some simple tricks like clenching your fists or moving your eyes from side to side which can help with memory creation as well.
Very Well Mind, 2020