How does stress affect memory?

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

stress nap
In the midst of a stressful time, it can be difficult to remember certain facts or situations.

Whether you’re taking an exam for school, talking to a crush for the first time, or going through your first driving lessons with a shouting parent, there’s nothing like stress to tinker with our memories. According to new research, however, different types of stress can either enhance our memories or turn us into a forgetful mess.

When we experience acute stress – an immediate reaction to danger, like getting into a fight – it enhances our learning process and allows our brains to absorb more details from the experience. This translates into a strong memory for that anxious experience. However, chronic stress – our reaction to long-term emotional negativity like dealing with a school bully every day – can hinder the brain’s ability to process experiences well. Why does this effect even happen at all?

Typically, the connections between brain cells enable us to do just about everything, like eat, walk, read, talk, think, and remember what we learn. When we feel chronic stress, our body’s balance of hormones – chemicals that alter our behavior – get out of whack. According to the latest research, the stress-related hormone called cortisol disrupts the connections between brain cells, making it that much more difficult to access our own memory. Experiencing chronic stress can lead to long-term brain changes, which ultimately makes an individual more likely to suffer from mental illness later in life.

Featured image courtesy of Sara V. on Flickr. Image of stressed napper courtesy of Aimee Heart on Flickr.