Stress and memory

People who are stressed often show decreased productivity, have trouble making decisions and memory problems. A stressed person for example may leave a room and not remember what they left for or may forget an appointment. It has also been shown that at times of crisis, trauma and extreme stress, a person may become confused ‘freeze’ and not remember critical emergency protocol such as where the fire exits are.

There have been a number of theories put forward to explain the factors behind memory loss during times of stress. When the body perceives a threat, the adrenal glands release cortisol also known as the stress hormone. Cortisol instigates the fight or flight response where by the normal functioning of the body is halted and the body is prepared to fight or flee the threatening situation, one functiuon is long term memory.

High concentrations of cortisol remain in the body and brain for approximatly 6 hours after the initial stressor has passed, in that time it is still instigating the stress response. The stress response has been found to interfere with some neurotransmitters, the chemical reactors in the brain that allow communication between different brain regions. Specifically, cortisol has been reported to restrict the the brain’s ability to both generate new memories or retrieve old ones. This is the understanding that has been used to explain why, in stressful or particularly traumatic events, people find it hard to remember the particular chain of events that occurred and will often only remember particular elements. This also provides an understanding of why, when a person is suffering from stress will find it difficult to make decisions with clarity and find it hard to be productive throughout the day.

Additionally, short-term memory is often the first memory centre to deteriorate with age that can be attributed to a life time of stress responses and large amounts of cortisol affecting the brain throughout their life.

There are a number of memory enhancing exercises and techniques that can be adopted to relieve stress and improve clarity of mind and memory. Kundalini yoga has been found to have profound stress management effects. Exercises and meditations have been shown to help make sense of the mind during times of stress, relax the body helping to reduce levels of cortisol and also to improve productivity and decision making.

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