Can Mental Health Problems And Stress Affect Your Memory
Many of us feel more forgetful than normal at times of stress and anxiety. So why is this, and what should we do if we’re experiencing poor memory in conjunction with poor mental health?
Reviewed byDr Sarah Jarvis MBE
27-Aug-20·5 mins read
It’s a familiar situation: you rush out of your house feeling stressed, only to realise you’ve left your wallet at home. Or you start to panic during an exam or interview, and find your mind going blank. If you’ve ever been accused of being scatty or distracted, you’ll be all too aware of the ways stress can affect your memory.
As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers on, chances are we’re all feeling the strain. And while stress and anxiety can affect our functioning in many different ways, memory issues are an important piece of the puzzle. Whether you’ve been experiencing complete blanks in your memory – or are simply feeling preoccupied and repeatedly misplacing your keys – it could be due to shaky mental health.
You Are Stressed Or Anxious
Hello! That would be the woman doing 700 things at the same time, or someone who has a lot of long-term external pressures, such as financial trouble or a loved one whos not well. When you have too many balls in the air or are burning the candle at both ends, cortisol levels run high, says Dr. Petersen. This stress hormone that keeps you revved and ready also affects the hippocampus and other parts of the brain that are involved in memory. Similarly, anxietypersistent worry about something that may or may not happen in the futurefeels like stress to your body, and so has the same effect on your brain. When your anxiety level is high, you cant focus on anything and your attention is going to be impairedits going to feel like you have a memory disorder because you cant concentrate on anything, says Dr. Faubion.
You Might Have A B12 Or Folate Deficiency
One of the known treatable causes of dementia is a vitamin B12 deficiency, says Dr. Faubion, found in foods like salmon, liver and milk. The vitamin supports nerve health, so we may check for vitamin B12 deficiency after the age 50 to make sure people are not deficient, she adds. That said, taking B12 pills does not help to improve memory unless youre deficient, says Dr. Petersen, which means taking extra B12 or folate isnt going to make you sharper.
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What Can You Do To Improve Memory
Improving your memory starts by simply integrating more strategies to ensure that your brain is kept active. For example:
- Reduce Your Anxiety Level The most important thing that you can do to improve memory deficits caused by anxiety is to reduce your anxiety. You can do this by going into therapy Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been shown to be helpful in the treatment of anxiety disorders. You can also get mindfulness training or learn how to meditate.
- Start a Daily Journal Keep a daily journal of the things you did during the day and the things you want to remember. Be as specific as possible, and then re-read that journal often to keep those memories alive. You’ll start to train your brain to remember these things better, and over time your memory should improve overall.
- Exercise Innumerable studies have established that physical exercise will improves your cognitive abilities including memory. Exercise can also relieve anxiety, so you get both benefits when you go jogging more.
- Learn Mnemonics There are many different tools that improve memory. Simply keeping your memory active is one step. Another is to work on mental strategies that are effective at creating memories faster and with easier recall.
- Sleep Many sleep researchers believe that sleep is actually when most memo are consolidated and become memories. During sleep, your brain processes various thoughts and turns them into long-term memories. Make sure you’re sleeping often to keep your memories alive.
Preventing Memory Loss And Forgetfulness
Living a healthy lifestyle is important for brain health. Some ways that you may be able to slow memory loss and cut down on forgetfulness are:
- Healthy eating Lyndsay said the MIND diet is beneficial for brain health. The MIND diet incorporates the DASH and Mediterranean food plans, which encourage eating brain-protecting foods such as fish, chicken, nuts and green leafy vegetables while avoiding processed foods and foods high in sugar and saturated fat.
- Exercise Even low-impact exercise like walking 30 minutes a day five times a week can help.
- Staying active cognitively Try mentally stimulating activities like reading, playing games, solving puzzles or learning a new hobby. The more challenging, the better.
- Socializing Social isolation can cause unhealthy stress and lead to depression. Forming and maintaining strong connections helps reduce stress and improve mood.
I would encourage anyone concerned about forgetfulness or any other change in their ability to function normally to see their primary care provider, Lyndsay said. Taking the steps to identify and manage reversible or treatable causes may improve memory and provide better health in general.
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Distinguishing Between Types Of Dementia
For physicians and families intent on pinning down a diagnosis, one major complicating factor is the existence of so many kinds of dementia. More than 50 conditions can mimic or cause dementia.
Alzheimers disease is by far the most common intractable condition. But other causes of irreversible dementia include blood vessel diseasevascular dementia), other degenerative disorders , slow-growing brain tumors, or infections of the central nervous system .
In some types of dementia, treatment will improve mental functioning, and in a small percentage, the dementia is completely reversible if treatment begins before permanent brain damage occurs. Thats why it is important to report to a doctor any signs of dementia as early as possible.
What To Do If A Family Member Has Memory Loss
If you detect possible memory problems in a loved one, try to encourage them to see a specialist who will be able to help them make a diagnosis. Remember that many people that suffer from memory problems aren’t conscious of the fact that they have them, so they may be reluctant to see a specialist and get help. In these cases, it’s important to have patience and bring the subject up carefully.
Once a medical professional has found a diagnosis, it’s important to follow the guidelines that they set for the patient. If the problem is in an early stage, help the person keep their daily routines both at home and with friends. As one of the main problems with Alzheimer’s Disease is temporal disorientation, it may be helpful to have clocks and calendars well placed throughout the house. It will likely become more difficult for the person to learn new things, but try to get them used to use an agenda or planner to keep track of their activities and appointments. Those close to the person with Alzheimer’s should carefully follow the doctor’s guidelines and make sure that they take their medicine and do the suggested activities. A dementia diagnosis can be difficult for both the patient and their loved ones, which is why it’s important to provide emotional support and help how you can. If you notice any symptoms that might suggest that the patient is suffering from depression, get in touch with a medical professional as soon as possible.
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Youre A Woman In Or Around Menopause
Among the many joys of perimenopause and the transition itself may be a small but significant cognitive impairment, according to research, that may be independent of age. Theories abound, but the bottom line is that we dont really know exactly why this happens, says Dr. Faubion.
The sorta kinda good news? Research has suggested that things go back to pre-menopause levels once youre through the ups and downs of the transition. That said, this is far from certain, especially if you have other factors, such as poverty or HIV. Women, especially women of color, with multiple risk factors may be more vulnerable to longer-lasting memory problems, says Dr. Faubion. Some of the women who were of highest risk in terms of socio-cultural stressors, with and without HIV, didnt look better on the other side of menopause, she says.
Whats more, perimenopause often brings on mood changes, such as anxiety and depression, and sleep problems, sometimes caused by symptoms like hot flashes. These can all affect memory. Which brings us to
Anxiety Blackouts Confusion And Depressed Mood
Reviewed on 8/5/2020
There are a few different medical conditions that are strongly associated with:
- Depressed Mood
While the symptoms above can be considered a guide to help associate symptoms common among the conditions below, this is not a substitute for a diagnosis from a health care provider. There are many other medical conditions that also can be associated with your symptoms. Below are the top condition matches for your symptom combination from MedicineNet:
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How To Combat Memory Loss If You Have Depression Or Anxiety
So what should you do if you notice your anxiety and/or depression are taking a toll on your memory? When youre experiencing high levels of depression or anxiety it is always beneficial to seek professional help , says Beecroft. This may include seeing a therapist who specializes in anxiety and depression on a weekly basis and talking to a psychiatrist about exploring medication if this something youre interested in exploring. For some people, medication may also be a good option as this could help play a role in how stress affects you on a day-to-day basis, adds Beecroft.
While the connection between anxiety, depression, and memory loss is not widely spoken about, Beecroft believes its important to remember that all of these things are related to the way our brain functions.
“If were not at our best emotionally because we might be struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, then that also plays a role in the functioning of our brains,” she says.
And if our brain has to pull more weight because our cognitive functions are being affected by depression and anxiety, then theres a possibility that it will not be able to pull as much weight in other areas, such as encoding memory. Knowing this now, I feel more compassion towards myself. And if youre going through something similar, I hope this has helped you, too.
Why Does Severe Anxiety Cause Memory Loss
Extensive research demonstrates various ways that anxiety and memory loss are linked, and studies show that people with generalized anxiety and/or panic disorders have greater difficulty remembering experiences from their childhood than their non-anxious counterparts. Its clear that acute stress can disrupt the process of collecting memories.
“For about three years, I could not remember anything about my childhood.”
New Yorkbased licensed mental health counselor Ramon Lantigua Jr. further explains this connection to Allure. Anxiety can cause memory loss because it is an incredibly unpleasant emotion, and memory loss allows us to put off dealing with that negative event in an attempt to limit future instances of anxiety, he says. Often, specific memories that caused us anxiety are specifically lost as a strategic coping mechanism. This coping skill is very common when dealing with those who have struggled with trauma.
Rachel, 21, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, confirmed that they tend to forget specific memories that were traumatic or caused them great anxiety. I have difficulty remembering the order of events that are related to traumatic memories, they say. I may remember what happened but not how it happened. And for about three years, I could not remember anything about my childhood.”
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If Youre Having Trouble Remembering Things Or Experiencing Memory Loss Its Important You Find Out Why Heres How
Being forgetful or experiencing memory loss can cause stress and result in confusion. Learn more
Memory loss becomes more common as we age, and in some cases can be a symptom of dementia but this often isnt the case. Memory loss can be caused by a number of other issues like anxiety, stress or depression. It can also be the result of physical damage caused by a head injury or a stroke
Whatever the reasons, if youre experiencing memory loss you should seek the advice and help of a professional.
What to do
If you are experiencing memory loss, or forgetfulness thats affecting your day-to-day life then you should speak to your GP.
They will speak to you about your experiences, your family history and may also request a blood test. Your GP will discuss their view on your condition and may refer you to our Devon Memory Service if they feel its appropriate.
While you may be concerned your memory loss could be a symptom of dementia, its likely to be caused by something else.
If you are suffering from dementia there is a whole range of support available from specialist services provided by charities like Alzheimers Society. Learn more
If you are in crisis call 0808 196 8708 or visit our ‘I need help now’ page or contact Samaritans on 116 123 or .
What Is The Fight Or Flight Response
Every animal, including humans, has an in-built fight or flight response. Its a complicated process that the body goes through whenever it is in a state of high stress, anxiety or fear. Millions of years ago it was designed to help humans escape from predators or fight a threat. These days, the stressful situations are slightly different most of us arent escaping sabre-toothed tigers or fighting neighbouring tribes. However, the bodys response when were stressed or anxious is the same. Chemicals prime the body, raising the heart rate to pump more blood to the muscles, dilating pupils to let as much light in as possible and shutting down non-essential body systems such as the immune system, digestion and memory. If the body doesnt need to run or fight, the chemicals can stay in the body and can lead to memory difficulties.
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How Stress Affects Short
“Having memory problems is quite a common experience when we are very stressed, anxious or depressed,” says psychiatrist Dr Karen Graham. “It can be harder to focus, think clearly, and learn new information. When we’re preoccupied about a stressful issue or have a busy worrying mind, then we’re distracted instead of being fully attentive. Depression can also make it difficult to focus well on what we’re doing.”
She adds that many mental health issues can impact our quality of sleep, resulting in reduced alertness throughout the day. It means information is less likely to get encoded properly as ‘working memory’ – the part of the memory system that’s involved with day-to-day tasks. Short-term memory, then, is often the first thing to suffer at times of ongoing stress and anxiety.
Why Are Anxiety And Memory Loss Linked
When we become stressed or anxious, our bodies release adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during high stress or exciting situations. This in turn causes the body to release another hormone called cortisol. Both chemicals are designed to give you energy and strength in case you need to fight or run away known as the fight or flight response . Cortisol remains in your body much longer than adrenaline and this can affect the brain cells involved in memory. It does this by disrupting the function of neurotransmitters, which carry information between brain cells. The end result? Your brain struggles to process information and lay down memories.
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Stress Memory And Animals
Much of the research relating to stress and memory has been conducted on animals and can be generalized to humans. One type of stress that is not easily translatable to humans is predator stress: the anxiety an animal experiences when in the presence of a predator. In studies, stress is induced by introducing a predator to a subject either before the learning phase or between the learning phase and the testing phase. Memory is measured by various tests, such as the radial arm water maze . In the RAWM, rats are taught the location of a hidden platform and must recall this information later on to find the platform and get out of the water.
How Are Anxiety And Memory Loss Related
There isnt one set way that memory loss affects everyone. It is, however, quite severe in those suffering from severe anxiety.
Cortisol, the stress hormone is the real cause of memory loss. Cortisol hormone is released in high quantities due to stress. For this reason, people with severe anxiety, and therefore severe stress, have a higher risk of suffering from serious memory loss. According to many studies, cortisol causes memory loss, more so loss of short term memory. This is because cortisol works like a toxin on brain cells.
It is worth noting that the longer one has anxiety, the higher the amounts of cortisol they have in their systems, and therefore, the more likely that they will increasingly get memory loss. But besides cortisol, memory loss may also occur to the following:
Another connection between anxiety and memory loss is to look at anxiety as intense distraction. In this case, the mind is unable to harness mental energy to create memories or notice the things happening around you.
Additionally, your mind retains memories of the things that are impressed on it with more intensity. For example, if you are too anxious about something, your brain takes the object of your anxiety as being more important than the things that you may hear from a friend or a teacher. Thus, while you dont deliberately ignore the things that you hear or learn, your mind stores what you keep on it with more intensity, even though this maybe just a fear.
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