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What Is the Connection Between Stress and Memory Loss?

Long-term stress and anxiety management may help alleviate any memory loss.
Memory loss can be caused by stress, because the stress hormone cortisol can hurt the brain's ability to retain information.
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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 23 October 2014
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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.

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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.

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browncoat
Post 3

@umbra21 - That kind of stress isn't that bad for you though, as long as it doesn't happen all the time. It's the long term stress, like the kind you get in an abusive home or a hated, high pressure job, that can really do damage to your brain and cause memory loss.

We are made to occasionally go into fight or flight mode. It's just that in the modern world we get subjected to the hormones that come with it all the time in low levels because we never stop being stressed.

Mindfulness is one really good meditation technique that's been developed specifically to help people with this kind of stress. If you're worried about suffering from it, you should look the technique up, as it's easy and it can really help people to relax.

umbra21
Post 2

@pastanaga - I get stressed a lot as well, but I find I actually will blank out if I'm really panicking over something. If I'm going to give a speech or have to go on a stage for some reason, I'll often not remember if there was applause, or what happened while I was up there. Not a blank spot, exactly, more like a fog that only clears once the scary thing has finished.

I actually find it quite annoying, because it's usually an event that I'm going to want to remember, like receiving an award, and it's not like I actually make a mistake or anything. My mind just seems to go into autopilot and doesn't bother to record anything while it's there.

pastanaga
Post 1

Stress has a lot to answer for in the modern world. I didn't realize until I went to therapy how much time I spend in a constant state of stress. While it doesn't really affect my memory drastically, I've noticed I'm much less likely to remember things if I'm not calm when they happen.

But there are always so many things to get done, it seems impossible to stop feeling stressed.

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