September 16, 2022

How Stress Affects Memory

stress and memory

Clinically reviewed by Dr. Jonathan Martin.

Stress at the right times and in the right amounts can be useful. For example, it can help us react effectively to emergency situations. But if you experience persistent or particularly intense stress, it can do more harm than good. 

It’s well known that excessive stress is bad for your body. However, it also can affect cognitive functions like your ability to form and retrieve memories. 

Stress and Short-Term Memories

Have you ever had an especially stressful experience and, soon after, struggled to recall the details? That’s probably because stress makes it harder to form short-term memories. People in law enforcement are familiar with this phenomenon from their dealings with eyewitnesses whose memories of an event are often incomplete or inaccurate.

Stress can also adversely affect the process of converting short-term memories into long-term memories. That means it’s harder to learn when stressed. 

However, studies have shown that the stress-memory relationship is complex. For example, while it’s fair to say that, overall, stress isn’t good for memory, there are exceptions. One is that memory improves if the material someone is learning is directly related to the stressor. And if you’re stressed after your brain has encoded the memory, that experience can improve the memory. 

Still, it’s a good idea for your general well-being to reduce your stress level and keep it as low as possible. 

How to Improve Your Memory When Stressed

Most people experience periods when stress is unavoidable, but there are still things they need to remember. If you find yourself in that type of situation, use these tips to support better information retention:

  • Get plenty of exercise. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can improve memory in people who are stressed. Ideally, you should get regular exercise even when life isn’t stressful.
  • Practice mindfulness. When we’re mindful, our full attention is on the present moment rather than reflecting on past events, anticipating future events, etc. It makes sense that when we’re keenly aware of important information, we’re more likely to retain it. Being more mindful can also help you sleep better, and quality sleep is vital to memory formation and health in general. 
  • Learn and use focused breathing and related techniques. Studies have shown that people who regularly face tense situations, like first responders, experience less stress from those events if they’re able to focus on their breath, on a mental image of themselves performing necessary actions correctly, etc.  

Talk with Your Baptist Health Doctor About Stress and Memory

Stress is part of life. Nobody can ever eliminate it. But if persistent stress is affecting your memory or quality of life in general, you don’t have to just endure it. You should talk with your doctor.

They can recommend ways to lower your stress level through lifestyle changes, relaxation techniques, counseling, and other means. And simply talking with your doctor and learning that you aren’t at the mercy of your stress may help alleviate it!

If you don’t have a Baptist Health physician, you can find one using our online provider directory

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