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The connection between stress and memory loss has to do with brain damage caused by an overstimulation of certain brain chemicals. When people get nervous or afraid, the brain releases chemicals that put them into a fight or flight mode. This is designed to prepare people for physical dangers, but it has some negative side effects. Studies have shown that these chemicals also damage crucial brain areas related to memory function. Both long-term and short-term damage has been demonstrated from this effect, but the long-term damage is more severe.
In terms of brain chemistry, the chemical most associated with the connection between stress and memory loss is called cortisol. It is released in the most primitive part of the brain, which generally regulates animal behaviors. When people deal with any kind of stress in their lives, the brain internally reacts in exactly the same way it would react if they were dealing with physical danger. In this way, the release of cortisol can be seen as a primitive reaction, while the ability to store memory is a more advanced brain function—in some ways, these parts of the brain aren’t very compatible.
The part of the brain most associated with stress and memory loss is called the hypothalamus. This area of the brain helps people store memories for long-term use. Many experts believe that exposure to cortisol can actually cause the hypothalamus to shrink physically. When this happens, many cognitive abilities will generally suffer, including memory function. Many studies have shown a relatively drastic size reduction in the hypothalamus of people who have suffered extreme stress for long periods.
For people trying to deal with stress and memory loss, there are a few solutions available. Science has shown that the hypothalamus is more capable of regenerating new cells than many other parts of the brain. In theory, it should generally be possible to increase the size of the hypothalamus and restore most of its function if the individual is able to reduce stress levels for a long period of time.
There are many ways to reduce anxiety over the long term, and these can help mitigate much of the stress and memory loss effects. For example, many people take prescription anti-depressant drugs, and experts believe that these can be helpful for people suffering from stress-related memory loss. Other methods of stress reduction, such as relaxation therapy and meditation, have also shown some level of effectiveness.