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
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