How important is your memory in your day-to-day life? How many tabs do you have open at any one time? To get the best out of stress and your memory, these two words should only have a short-term relationship. It should be an “off and on” one, and my clients are people who dive deep into their stress well toolkit for help when they know they can’t keep running on stress without an impact on their memory.

In my very early days working in the recruitment industry in a contract recruitment business which moved very quickly, memory played an important role in optimal performance and outcomes. It served me well in those early years. Though as time wore on, my roles changed, my perceived stressors changed and so did my explicit memory. That ability to remember names, dates, and facts started to falter. At the time I didn’t realise it could be stress. I just thought I was getting old.

Stress and memory

I was about 35 when I noticed this change! This makes complete sense on reflection. I just thought I was getting older, and it was due to aging (which does also affect our memory). Like many facets of stress, the stress system is designed to help us, when we “genuinely” need it. The stress response can be useful when we remember how to get out of a tough spot or call on important information for a meeting. The memory reacts to the stress response, and you get out of a bind. In other words, they have worked together as a team.
It is a very useful and well-designed system, our autonomic nervous system, when its required. However, this very effective system – in the right circumstances – is becoming a challenge for the over ruminating, “busy” or constantly stressed human. Our implicit memory (the skill and movement-based element) under stress seems to keep operating. We can remember how to duck and weave and move. But our explicit memory – simplified here as, facts and figures – is the one which gets itself in a twist, under a stress response. Under a wave of hormones, which are released as part of our stress response, it isour explicit memory which breaks down, if the system overheats. And it’s here we can start to forget stuff!

Based on animal research it is reported that brain neurons don’t work as well in a state of prolonged or severe stress. The reason why, keeping it as simple as possible, the process of keeping neurons “excited” and sending higher activity messages, can be disrupted by excessive stress-based hormones, glucocorticoids. Although these help neurons fire up and enhance memory initially, they do the opposite if they continue being produced. The neurons and related connecting network (axons and dendrites) of the hippocampus, where our memories are built, can begin to shrivel up under this prolonged hormone response. The research which has been done on humans, which affect our memory AND have a strong correlation to the rising mental health issues, are:
– major depression (et al – Yvette Sheline; Washington University),
– PTSD (et al Douglas Bremmer; Emory University) and
– jet lag (et al Kei Cho; University of Bristol).

All these studies have had findings correlating to elevated stress related hormones and smaller hippocampus formation (atrophy and a reduction in neurons) and therefor, reduced memory. Why Is It Important? As we beaver away in the office or working from home; perhaps burn the candle at both ends; live a “busy” life; have negative news put in our faces each day, we could be getting wound up
into an elevated and prolonged stress response. Poor memory could be a sign that stress is present and could be the reason you are getting agitated at your reduced memory capability. Use it as a sign and take your foot off the gas and rebalance your body and mind. The good thing is that the hippocampus is one of two areas of the brain which can regrow neurons! So, give it every chance to do this, and look after it. Wordle away, sleep well for recovery, practise some form of mindfulness, read a real book, exercise, and eat well!
Most importantly of all – don’t go it alone. It’s easier than you think to instigate a breakup between stress and memory – just reach out for a chat about how I can be of support.

Reference; Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Robert Sapolsky (Professor of Neuroscience and Biology –
Stanford University).

If you feel you need assistance within your organisation, please reach out and we can have a discussion.