It’s 5 am, you’re running through a list of appointments and deadlines for the day, when all of a sudden it hits you — you had an appointment with your doctor the day before, and you completely forgot to go. Not only that, but you didn’t even realize you’d missed it until this very moment.
You’re at a soccer game when the mother of a child your son has been playing ball with for years approaches. You rack your brain, but can’t remember her name. You’re so preoccupied with figuring it out before she notices that you miss the entire conversation.
You get up off the couch and stride purposefully into the kitchen, but once you’re there you can’t remember why you were heading there.
Have you experienced situations like these recently? So many women come into my office with this kind of story, terrified that they are losing their minds. “What’s wrong with me?” they ask. I’m quick to reassure them that the root of their problem is probably not a serious disease. It’s something far more pervasive and common: stress overload!
Did you know that the most common cause for brain changes is stress and multi-tasking? And we face so much stress in our daily lives these days that many more people find themselves faced with memory issues, brain fog and more.
We’ve been conditioned to expect cognitive changes as we age, but if stress is the issue, there’s no need to think that declining cognitive abilities are inevitable. We just need to know how to ward off stress and keep yourself sharp – regardless of age!
Let’s look at what stress can do to your brain, and then I’ll give you some practical tips on how to keep yourself mentally sharp, even if it seems like the whole world is falling apart.
Stress is Everywhere – and Impacts Everything!
I’ve written a lot about stress already. You can find information on personal stress and health, stress and aging, how stress impacts hormones, and much more in my health library. But I want to look more closely at the ideas that stress is inevitable, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
So, is stress inevitable? The short answer is an absolute yes. In a fact sheet on stress, the National Institute of Mental Health says, “Stress is how the brain and body respond to any demand.” And since everyone’s body responds differently to stimuli, what that means is that anything can be a stressor. What activates that stress response won’t be the same for any two people. The biggest issue is the ongoing stress!
So what about women who insist they don’t feel stressed? Are they just in denial? I think it’s more likely that they have been trained to perceive “stress” as a bad thing. So if they haven’t been through any traumatic incidents, their relationship is fine, and they don’t feel overwhelmed at work, they might think stress couldn’t possibly be an issue.
But if stress is a response, then it isn’t inherently good or bad — it simply is. When that response is activated, it causes physiological changes in your body. And if it’s activated too often, it can also change what happens in your brain — and that’s where the trouble begins.
Stress and Survival
Part of the stress response involves the release of hormones to spur your body into protective mode. These hormones, especially cortisol and adrenaline, create a physical response — your heart beats faster, your senses are heightened, and you get a surge of energy designed to help you survive. All of this is good if you’re being chased by a wild animal. But this response is not meant to be activated constantly.
The big problem is that your automatic response is the same regardless of the type of stress you’re experiencing. So a tiger chasing you creates the same physical response as a traffic jam. Physical stress isn’t distinguished from emotional stress; it all puts you into survival mode. And while it may feel like a traffic jam is a big problem when you’re late to an important meeting, you aren’t going to die because you don’t make it there on time, so they really are quite different.
When your body is processing CONSTANT stress – big or small – big health problems can result. Your brain function can be impacted in many profound ways, particularly with memory, attention and learning. Let’s take a closer look.
How Does Stress Impact My Brain?
Stressors can be large or small, positive or negative, and believe it or not, you actually want some stress in your life. Mild, periodic stress aids in learning and creating memories. But chronic stress is another story.
When stress hormones are released too often, you may end up with chronically high levels of cortisol. And when this happens, your brain suffers. Here are just a few of the things that occur:
- Changes to the hippocampus (which is central to learning and memory) at the cellular level
- Build up of free radicals and chronic inflammation, which can lead to quicker brain aging;
- Slow or stalled neuron production;
- Dysfunction in the manufacturing of neurotransmitters that help regulate cognitive function and mood
When these things occur, you may not be able to concentrate like you used to. You might find yourself irritable, depressed, or forgetting simple, everyday things – like names or appointments. Or you might notice even bigger memory issues. Let’s take a look at what research centered on stress and memory tells us.
What Research Says About Stress and Memory
A wealth of research has been conducted on the connection between stress and memory. It’s clear from some of this research that stress causes difficulty in the creation of short term memories and converting these into long-term memories. Simply put, it’s harder to learn when you are under stress.
And that’s not all. The memories we do form under stress might not be as accurate as they seem. And memories aren’t static; every time you recall something from your past, the memory of that event can change ever so slightly. That’s why you might have a completely different recollection of events than someone else who was present. Many a family argument has started because of this!
Acute stress and long term stress don’t impact memory in the same ways. Research suggests that while low level chronic stress can cause difficulties, intense episode of stress might actually strengthen the connections. It makes sense, when you think about the stress response as a survival mechanism. The ability to remember dangerous situations allows us to avoid them in the future.
Because chronic stress has been shown to negatively impact memory time and again, that’s what we need to really pay attention to. In fact, the memory issues themselves are often a source of stress. It can become an endless loop, which in time could cause permanent changes in the brain.
But that’s a worst case scenario, and it doesn’t have to be like that. When you give stress the attention it deserves, and take active steps to break the cycle, balance can be restored.
Can I Change the Relationship Between Stress and Memory?
You won’t be able to eliminate all stress in your life — and remember I said earlier you shouldn’t even want to? Some stress is very valuable to learning and memory development. But with all of the stressors so many of us deal with daily, it’s important to learn how to reduce the impact it has on your life – and brain!
Practice Self-Care for Your Body and Brain
Most people know that taking care of your body is essential to good overall health. Don’t forget that your brain is a vital part of your body, and it needs care too! With all of the connections between stress and memory (and other cognitive functioning), taking care of your brain should be priority number one. And the best way to do so is to find ways to relax, center yourself, and relieve stress. Here are some everyday tips to follow to keep your brain healthy and your memory strong.
Give the Phrase “Stress Eating” New Meaning
Eating in times of great stress is often less than healthy. You’re pressed for time, so you grab whatever is handy, most often something from a vending machine, fast food, or a convenience store. You go long stretches without eating anything at all, then eat whatever you can find. You turn to “comfort foods” – often heavy in sugar and/or carbohydrates – to make you feel better. Or you need a quick “pick-me-up” to get through the rest of the day, so you grab a caffeinated beverage or sugary treat for the surge of energy it brings.
The problem is that all of those things leave you feeling more drained in the end. Filling your body with sugar, unhealthy fats, and processed foods actually compounds the stress, rather than relieving it. So what should you do instead?
Make sure you are giving your brain the fuel it needs. Eat at regular intervals, and keep your choices high in nutrients. Eating three to five times per day, including protein at the main meals will help regulate blood sugar levels and keep you on an even keel. Your brain will be energized and ready to learn, remember, and attend to new information.
I recommend that you keep your diet low in sugar and processed foods, and high in healthy fats and a wide variety of organic vegetables. Lean protein is also important, and I suggest including some each time you eat. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables will help ensure you get as many essential nutrients as you can to keep your brain functioning at peak performance levels.
Add Nutrients As Necessary
It’s nearly impossible these days to eat a perfect diet that gives us all the nutrients we need, especially in times of high stress. Some are particularly important to supporting your brain, including: Omega-3s; B vitamins; vitamins C, D, and E; calcium; and magnesium. You can get all of these and more in a high-quality multivitamin.
Engage in Active Stress Relief Techniques
Exercise, mindful practices, meditation, and breathing are all great ways to let go of stress. Studies have shown that exercise can actually change gene expression in the brain. But you have to be sure that it won’t cause you more stress, so it has to be something you love. Likewise, meditation, yoga and practicing mindfulness have been shown to reduce stress, but if they make you more agitated, keep looking until you find something that works for you.
Get More Sleep
Sleep is one of the cornerstones of good brain functioning. A large body of research details the connection between stress and sleep. So it makes sense, then, that to reduce stress you have to get enough sleep. I recommend at least eight hours of good quality, uninterrupted sleep. If you have a hard time getting to sleep at night, consider some herbal support. Valerian root, chamomile, passion flower and lemon balm are among the herbs known to support sleep. My Sleep Support Formula contains all of these and several other nutrients to help you get the rest you need. Or you may do well using Stress Ease, which decreases high levels of cortisol at night, which can cause sleep disturbance or an inability to get back to sleep.
One of the best ways I’ve found to reduce stress in my own life is ballroom dancing. When I’m dancing, I have to let everything else go and focus on my steps and my partner. And when I am on the dance floor, I experience pure joy. Joy counters stress every time, so I urge you to find what does that for you. Sing, dance, hike, ride a motorcycle, or jog on the beach — the activity itself isn’t important – it’s how it makes you feel that matters!
Get to the Bottom of What’s Causing Your Stress
You can’t do anything about something you don’t know. That’s why this step is so critical – and so difficult! It can be particularly challenging if you’re one of those women who thinks everything is fine. But if you are having memory issues, it’s safe to say there’s something going on! Try keeping a journal of all the things that make you feel drained, sad, or anxious. You don’t have to list them all at once – jot them down as they come up, then set a time to take the list out and look it over. Then it’s up to you to change the things you can, and change your response to those you can’t.
Support Your Body Through Stress, and Memory Issues May Disappear
You will have stress throughout your life. We will never live in a Utopia free from all danger and difficult circumstances. But how you react to it, the support you give to your body, can make all the difference. Take steps to reduce your stress today and you’ll be well on your way to remembering all the details of life with ease!