You may know about how stress can affect your body – making it difficult to sleep so you’re groggy during the day, depression, anxiety and inability to focus on work and other tasks. Your memory can also be highly affected by chronic or extreme stress.
The memory works by processing information we acquire through the pathways of the brain. We can retain and recall experiences and things we’ve learned in the past through the neural pathways.
Short-term memory (working memory) is what we notice or think of first when we’re reading or memorizing something. Then, it’s processed into the long-term memory – if conditions are healthy in your brain. Here are the three stages that information goes through before it’s processed into the long-term memory:
Encoding – Encoding happens when you listen or observe something. You must move on to the next two stages for it to stay in your memory.
Consolidation – Much like you would burn a CD, consolidated information becomes burned into your memory so you can move on to the next stage.
Retrieval – The part of your brain which allows you to recall the information you encoded and consolidated.
Stress may interfere with either or all of these memory processing stages in the following ways:
Interference – Stress can interfere with any of the above processes by distracting what you’re trying to remember. For example, if you’ve just memorized some important information and then experience a stressful situation, you’re not likely to remember the data you were trying to process.
Not finishing the process – If you don’t complete all three of the stages to process memories you probably didn’t encode it in the first place. For example, if you forget an important business meeting, you likely just heard the date and time, but didn’t write it down or think of it in ways to remember it and store it in your long-term memory.
Stress hormones – Stress can create stress hormones that may prevent passage of memories through the neural pathways. These hormones interfere with the chemical balance of your brain and can greatly reduce your recall ability.
A certain amount of stress can actually be good for you – especially when it’s involved with emotions. You can probably remember some traumatic event that happened in your life because it was an emotional experience and your brain recorded every detail.
We’re born with a certain amount of this ingrained emotional memory ability because of the “fight or flight” response we had to develop early on, when survival depended on it. Think about the stress in your own life and how it may be affecting your memory recall.