Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Impact of Stress on Memory

Have you ever noticed that when you’re trying to hurry up with something, it often takes longer to accomplish? You overslept and had to rush through the morning routine to get to work or the kids to school, and you can’t find your keys. You can find a million shoes, but none of them match. Or worse yet, you get to work and realize you forgot your briefcase at home.

The answer to this phenomenon is simple. It’s stress. This may seem like a crutch or an excuse, but it is real. Multiple studies throughout the years have confirmed that stress and anxiety increase cortisol levels in the brain, leading to decreased number of synapses (the connections between neurons) in the pre-frontal cortex where short-term memory is controlled. Stress has also been found to increase white matter in the brain which leads to a reduction in the number of neurons which assist with memory processing.

The bad news here is that if we never do anything to reduce our levels of stress, our brain functioning will only decline. Lack of attention and concentration also associated with stress will confound forgetfulness. However, there is good news. Not only can stress-related memory loss be reversed, it can be prevented by taking the following steps:

Establish a sleep routine. Not everyone requires 8 hours of sleep; some need less and some need more. However much you require to function at your fullest (generally at least 7 hours) should be regular. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time.
Exercise regularly. The body recognizes exercise as stress because it is different than our regular relaxed state and temporarily will actually increase cortisol levels. However, with regular exercise, this effect is decreased and the body no longer perceives exercise as stress. This leads to less production of cortisol and hence a stronger ability to respond to stress.
Breathe. Practice deep breathing exercises to increase oxygen flow to the brain. This will facilitate a more relaxed feeling but also allow for better attention and concentration.
Keep it in perspective. We all experience stress in ways that are both acute and chronic. Remind yourself to take a step back and consider how important this particular stressor is in the grand scheme of things.
Laugh and have fun. Laughter increases your intake of oxygen, stimulates yours cardiovascular system, and increases endorphins.  Engaging in enjoyable activities can also foster a sense of well-being and socialization.

So next time you notice you are feeling stressed and forgetful, take a deep breath, exercise, laugh, and sleep. And remember, tomorrow will be better.

Kelly Renzi, PsyD

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

But I Thought I was Better... Coping with Recurring Stress

So often we assume that once we get past the rough spot we find ourselves in, that it will be smooth sailing going forward.  Unfortunately, so often we find ourselves mistaken.  While the mindset of “I just have to get through this” can be helpful in the moment, it can set us up for feelings of disappointment and failure later. 

Emotions and stress are like waves in the ocean… they build, peak, and recede, only to be followed by another.   We have little to no control over our emotions; no more than we have any control over the waves in the ocean.  Emotions happen naturally, whether we wish them to occur or not. Not often does one say “I wish I were depressed.” Rather, depression (or any other emotion) occurs, sometimes despite our best efforts.  “But I wasn’t depressed (anxious, angry, etc.) anymore, and now it’s back; what did I do wrong?”  Likely, nothing. That can be the nature of the emotion, as troublesome as it may be. So what can you do? 

Simple answer- Cope.

What it means to cope will vary from person to person.  But whatever that means to you, do it. If it means making sure you are exercising regularly, do it. If it means that you are attending yoga weekly, do it. If it means spending quality time with friends and family, do it.  If it means scheduling an appointment with your previous therapist, DO IT. 

Having to cope with a previously overcome emotion is not failure.   It is life. Emotions come and go. Sometimes we need boosters.  While we cannot control the rain that falls in our life, we can control how we cope with the rain.  We can pretend that it is not there… We can try to dart between buildings getting brief reprieves from the wet onslaught. We can dig in our bags and pull out our umbrella and hope it is big enough to keep us from becoming drenched. And sometimes, we need to ask for help and seek refuge until the storm passes.  We are powerless to control whether or not it rains, or whether or not we experience a specific emotion, but what IS in our control is how we respond to it.  

Karen Rosian, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist