How Stress Affects Your Memory

You're Not Losing Your Mind - You're Just Stressed Out!

Since this is Brain Awareness Week, ThirdAge decided to have a look at recent research about the aging brain. We ran across riffs on all the usual advice including diet, exercise, crossword puzzles, "neuroplasticity," and the differences between the gray matter of men and women -- but one finding riveted our attention. If you've been having what seem to be "senior moments" lately, getting older may not be the main culprit after all. Instead, the perpetrator could be constant stress. A study, done at the State University of New York at Buffalo by Zhen Yan, Ph.D., and colleagues and published in the journal "Neuron," showed that when your stress hormone cortisol spikes and then remains high, your prefrontal cortex is disturbed to the point that memory problems can occur. Also, neuropsychologist Paul Nussbaum Ph.D., author most recently of "Save Your Brain: The 5 Things You Must Do to Keep Your Mind Young and Sharp," talked during an American Society on Aging webinar about how a prolonged version of the "fight or flight syndrome" can cause the hippocampus, your brain's memory center, to shut down. Notice that in both of those examples, the emphasis is on chronic as opposed to acute stress. In other words, if you slam on the brakes to avoid a fender bender, your sweaty palms and thudding heart will return to normal shortly and you won't experience memory loss. In fact, your recollection of the frightening situation may even be enhanced by all those rushing hormones. However, if you had actually ended up hitting the car ahead of you, you might have had to deal for weeks or months with whiplash, insurance, car repairs, and flashbacks in addition to all the normal concerns and anxieties of your life. That level of stress over that length of time is what wreaks havoc with your ability to retain information and call up what you've already stored away.

In fact, you don't even need something as dramatic as an auto accident to cause the kind of long-term stress that makes you forgetful. Simply a low level but ongoing concern about your finances in these perilous times, or continuing anxiety about an adult child who's having problems, or the daily work and worry that goes along with caregiving, can muddle your mind pretty effectively.

So what's the solution? You can't magically get rid of the chronic stressors in your life, but what you can do is mitigate your reaction to them. Again, we won't reiterate what you've heard so often before about the importance of good nutrition and regular exercise, although we hope you won't ignore those ways to calm yourself. We also won't trot out the old take-a-bubble-bath tip or even the one about having a good laugh. They do work, of course, but we nosed around for some fresh and surprising stress beaters to add to your list:

Write Down Your Worries

Turn off the computer and pick up a pen and paper. Studies have shown that the act of cursive handwriting, all but lost in this digital age, is not only soothing but also helps exorcise your stress demons. Better yet, try to write with your non-dominant hand. The sheer novelty of this will challenge your neurons and help bring down your cortisol level.

Don't Just Sit There, Do Something! The often-heard recommendation to sit calmly and mediate makes plenty of people more anxious than ever! If you fall into that category, forget the "Om" and get out of the house. Catch a movie with a friend, play Mahjong, take the grandchildren to the zoo, or anything else that keeps you from being alone with your thoughts. Don't Live in the Moment This sounds like heresy but you may have seen the Internet meme that went viral, saying "I shall live in the moment unless the moment is unpleasant, in which case I will have a cookie." Experts agree that there's truth in that witticism – not the part about the cookie, of course, but the part about escaping from a not-so-wonderful moment. The idea is to plan something fun to look forward to when you can possibly get away from whatever is draining your emotional reserves right now. Be realistic, though. Don't promise yourself a world cruise if that's going to be out of the question. Just decide that you'll go window shopping with your BFF and maybe buy a trinket or two, or that you'll treat yourself to dinner at that new restaurant in town. Have a Tantrum Blowing off steam instead of always being the good little girl who never makes a fuss is a genuine stress reliever. The current advice is not to "share," however, but to pick a time when you're alone. Then go ahead and yell about how angry or put upon you feel. Consider adding the old punch-a-pillow ploy for extra release.
Practice Random Acts of Kindness You already know that reaching out to others is good for your state of mind, but you don't have to go so far as to sign up to serve at a soup kitchen or commit to anything else that will put one more obligation on your already crammed to-do list. Just make a point of being nice. Do simple little things such as hold the door for a woman with a stroller or comment on somebody's attractive new hairstyle or let the person with one item in his shopping cart go ahead of you at the grocery check-out counter. There! Don't you feel better already? Chances are your memory is on its way to being up to snuff again as well!
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