Have you ever had someone ask you if you remember something about your past, only to come up empty? Has this happened to you more than once? Does it happen all the time? Reflect on your life. When did you have periods of stress? Were they moments, months, years, or longer? Do these periods correspond with some missing memories? Your memories may be missing because of stress.
Apart from extreme stress situations (like trauma, which our brain processes differently altogether) or lower stress situations (like waiting in a long line at the store, which may be below threshold to have much of an impact long term) moderate to high levels of stress can impact both how we create and retrieve memories.
Part of the reason for this relationship has to do with stress hormones in our bloodstream. When we are stressed, stress hormones are released, and over-secretion of stress hormones can impair memory. For example, cortisol, a biomarker for stress, when present in excess in the bloodstream can block the hippocampus in the brain from storing events as they happen, and from recalling them later on. Stress hormones can also take energy from the brain by diverting glucose, an energy molecule, to your muscles. Over time, if this pattern continues (e.g. in cases of chronic stress) the brain can re-wire itself and affect both the way we remember and the way we think long term.
Ok, so this applies to you. What can you do with this information? Luckily, our brains are adaptive- you may have heard of this as “neuroplasticity.” Like roads that are built into superhighways due to increased traffic, the more we do something one way, the quicker and more solidified that pathway is in the brain. We can build new roads and turn them into highways by redirecting our “traffic.” In other words, we can train our brain to rewire by teaching it other ways to do something. That means if we learn to lower our stress level, we can help our brain become more effective at storing and retrieving memories.
Your first step will be finding ways to be less impacted by stress. What are some techniques to accomplish this? Sometimes it is a matter of doing things differently. Other times we need to make bigger changes. Something we have explored in a previous news topic, is using mindfulness. Mindfulness helps us reduce stress by focusing on our present experience. By doing this, we are turning off our inner monologue and fully immersing ourselves in the moment. We can also use practices like meditation and deep breathing which biologically reduce chemical stress reactions in the body. When we are mindful, we use all five of our senses to experience something, and create an effectively stronger memory. For this reason, mindfulness also positively impacts our ability to make and retrieve memories. The combination of reducing stress and creating stronger memories through mindfulness can be a powerful start to re-wiring the way you interact with and remember the world around you. Explore in your next session how mindfulness and other techniques can help you reduce stress, make better memories, and create your best life!
© 2017 Creatively, LLC
The information provided in this blog is from my own clinical experiences and training. It is intended to supplement your clinical care. Never make major life changes before consulting with your treatment team. If you are unsure of your safety or wellbeing, do not hesitate to get help immediately.