Is Stress Making You Forgetful? The Link Between Chronic Stress and Memory

April 5, 2020

Have you ever noticed the strong link between chronic stress and memory? Think back to the last time you were under a lot of stress. Most likely, you were hyper-focused on completing a task or worried about a concern that was taking up almost all of your attention. Do you remember anything else from that time? Can you recall the details of your surroundings, such as who you were with, what they said to you, or even where you were?

I know there have been many times when I’m under stress that I can’t even recall the drive home from my office. Suddenly, I’m home and have absolutely no recollection of the drive or the traffic. There are also times when I’m so distracted by stress that I forget my security alarm code or why I walked into another room. I have to stop and give it serious thought. Has this ever happened to you?

It’s amazing how chronic stress and memory are connected. Think about my bear scenario: If you’re running away from a bear in the woods, you’re not going to notice the flowers or beautiful sky while you’re focused on trying to get away. Once you’ve escaped, you’ll likely not remember a single thing about your journey or how you got to where you ended up. Why? You were so focused on the bear that your mind went on auto-pilot. The details simply didn’t matter. And the same is true for your everyday life when you’re under chronic stress.

So, let’s take a closer look at exactly how chronic stress and memory are connected, why you tend to be more forgetful when you’re experiencing stress, and what you can do to help boost your memory even in your most stressful times!


Chronic Stress and Memory

So, how are chronic stress and memory linked? Well, it all goes back to the stress hormone cortisol.

Believe it or not, chronic high cortisol levels have been shown to have neurotoxic effects over time. [1] Here’s how that happens: Whenever you experience a highly stressful event, such as running from a bear you’ve spotted in the woods, your cortisol rises and your body enters the fight-or-flight mode. Let’s take a closer look at exactly how stress impacts your brain.



Stress and Your Brain

When your body enters this mode, it sends a message to the part of your brain that process emotions such as happiness or fear (known as your amygdala). Whenever your amygdala is signaled, it automatically impacts the area of your brain associated with learning and memory. This happens to help you process and understand the stress or threat that is upon you, so your brain can tell your body how to respond. In the example of the bear encounter, your brain will tell your body to run!

While this process is helpful with short-term bouts of stress, it can actually damage your brain if your stress becomes chronic. The truth is that stress can actually overstimulate your brain to the point that you miss details and experience short-term memory loss.

Whenever your cortisol and norepinephrine sharply rise, your brain is exposed to the higher amounts of cortisol circulating in your body. The problem is this: Scientists have discovered that when your brain is constantly exposed to high amounts of cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes your hippocampus to shrink! When your hippocampus shrinks, its ability to process and store memories is reduced. [2]

In fact, in a 2014 study, researchers took a closer look at the size of the amygdala and hippocampus after a traumatic or stressful event. They studied 39 coal miners—25 who suffered from PTSD due to a gas explosion and 14 who weren’t traumatized. The researchers found that those suffering from PTSD had significantly less volume in the amygdala and hippocampus. [3]

Now, there’s a third part of your brain involved in the chronic stress and memory connection: your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for many executive functions such as planning, focus, predicting/anticipating outcomes, impulse control, and reason.

Your prefrontal cortex is also responsible for informing your hippocampus of the need to recall a memory. But when your body enters the fight-or-flight mode and your cortisol rises (such as when you encounter a bear), it inhibits your prefrontal cortex? Why? Well, this happens because your body needs to focus your energy elsewhere.

In that moment, you don’t need to give anything deep thought. Your energy is immediately diverted to your muscles so you can run. This is why, when faced with a threat, you often respond with a “knee jerk” reaction you may regret later. You simply can’t think clearly in that moment.


Chronic stress and memory - Dr. Pingel


How Modern Stress Impacts Memory

Now, here’s where this all comes into play. With our modern world and its constant demands, your body almost constantly remains in the fight-or-flight mode. Whether it’s a concern over your finances, job, spouse or partner, children, or even the constant pinging of your smartphone, there are constant stressors all around you. And, believe it or not, your body reacts to those stressors just as it would a bear encounter.

Every time you experience a stressful event or situation, your body diverts energy away from your brain, which impacts your ability to form and store new memories. Again, think back to the last time you were running late for an appointment. You probably can’t picture your exact surroundings. Maybe you were so panicked and rushed that you couldn’t even process where you left your phone or keys.

Now take a moment and consider what happens when you experience several instances of this kind of stress every single day. When this happens, the link between chronic stress and memory becomes very clear. The stress you’re under winds up having lasting effects on your amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. And, as a result, you become more forgetful and less able to process new information. You may even begin to experience more mood swings. And what do all of these situations cause? More stress! It feels like a vicious cycle, right?

Here’s the good news: If any of this sounds familiar, there are things you can do to help boost your memory and cognitive function even in the face of stress. After all, your life isn’t going to magically become less stressful. So, let’s review how you can better support your body’s stress response so that the connection between chronic stress and memory doesn’t leave you feeling forgetful and frustrated.

How to Minimize the Effects of Stress on Memory and Concentration

Fortunately, there are things you can do to help support your body’s stress response and boost your memory in the process. Here are a few of my top tips.

1. Consume adrenal-supporting foods and herbs.

If your memory lapses are due to your body’s poor stress response, the first thing you should do is support your adrenal health. Your adrenal glands control your body’s stress response. When these glands become fatigued from being overworked due to chronic stress, they don’t function as well and your body is no longer able to manage your stress appropriately.

There are several ways you can support your adrenal health, but the first things you should do are to consume adrenal-supporting foods and herbs. Click here for a list of the top foods and herbs you should be including in your diet.

2. Complete focus exercises.

You can lessen the negative effects of chronic stress and memory by doing exercises that require focus, such as meditation. In fact, a 2010 study revealed that when participants with poor memory performed meditation for eight weeks, they experienced improvements in both verbal fluency and logical memory. [4]

But how does that work? Well, meditating actually stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system, which helps you to de-stress and unwind. It also helps your adrenal glands to stop releasing cortisol and allows your body to enter a calm state. And when you’re able to calm both your mind and your body, this helps you avoid distracting thoughts and become more relaxed. [5] Studies have shown that because meditation promotes relaxation and calm, it also supports learning ability and emotional regulation. [6]

3. Incorporate some movement.

If you’re looking to improve both chronic stress and memory, performing calming exercises may be especially beneficial. In fact, a 2016 study revealed that regular exercise can actually alleviate memory deficits caused by chronic stress. [7] And another study revealed that people who completed 20 minutes of daily exercised performed better on memory tests than those who didn’t exercise. [8]

As far as what types of exercise you should do, any movement you enjoy will help to reduce stress and, therefore, boost your memory. That said, studies have shown that people who implement regular yoga regimens experience significant decreases in stress and/or anxiety symptoms. [9]

4. Support your stress response with B vitamins.

B vitamins have been shown to not only support your body’s stress response but also boost your memory, focus, and overall cognitive function as well. Interestingly, several studies have shown that a deficiency in vitamin B12 is associated with cognitive impairment. [10]

Moreover, in a 2010 study on 215 men, researchers found that supplementing with a B-complex vitamin actually improved the men’s cognitive performance. The men taking the supplements had “significantly more” correct answers and performed cognitive tests longer than a group taking a placebo. [11]


As you can see, there’s a clear link between chronic stress and memory. But with the right support, you can overcome the impact stress has on both your body and mind.


Key Takeaways

  • Chronic high cortisol levels have been shown to have neurotoxic effects over time, showing a strong link between chronic stress and memory.
  • Research has shown that when your brain is constantly exposed to high amounts of cortisol and norepinephrine, it causes your hippocampus to shrink.
  • Fortunately, there are things you can do to help support your body’s stress response and boost your memory in the process. These include consuming adrenal-supporting foods and herbs, completing focus exercises such as meditation, performing calming exercises, and supplementing with B vitamins.
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