Conquer Stress to Boost Memory

In small doses, stress can be good for memory, helping to fix information more firmly in our memory banks, and making recall easier. However, in excessive amounts, or when sustained over too long a period of time, stress has the opposite effect.

“Research suggests that persistent stress is difficult for the brain to manage,” says Greg Fricchione, MD, Associate Chief of Psychiatry and Director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at MGH. “Chronic unrelenting stress can interfere with concentration and memory formation and retrieval, and may be linked to physical changes in the brain associated with impaired memory functioning.


Use this simple relaxation response technique to help protect your brain—and your memory—from unhealthy stress levels:

  • Find a quiet place where you can lie or sit comfortably without interruption.
  • Close your eyes and inhale deeply through your nose to a slow count of 10, feeling your abdomen expand fully.
  • Now exhale through your mouth slowly and completely, to the count of 10.
  • Repeat for 10 to 20 minutes, concentrating on your breathing and gently putting other thoughts out of your mind.
  • When you are finished, slowly open your eyes and sit quietly for a time before rising.

“Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself from the effects of excessive or chronic stress, and perhaps even to reverse memory decline linked to stress. These steps are especially important for older adults, many of whom may already be coping with age-associated brain changes that put memory functioning at risk.”

Learning techniques to help you handle stress can be very helpful to memory functioning. (See suggested stress-reducing strategies, below.)

A Blow to the Brain

Scientists are gradually building an understanding of how processes unleashed in response to prolonged or excessive stress can impair memory.

The evidence suggests that a severe or prolonged stressful event prompts the release of a stress hormone called cortisol. In small doses over the short term, cortisol may help with learning and memory and help us improve our performance over time. Excessive or prolonged elevations in cortisol levels, however, may get in the way of memory by disrupting the functioning of neurons in the hippocampus and promoting pathological changes in that brain region, leading to atrophy, impairment of communication among brain cells, and the promotion of still more stress and cortisol production. Studies show that people with continuously high levels of the hormone do not perform as well on memory tests.

“There is growing evidence that experiencing constant distress over which you have no control can increase risk for dementia,” adds Dr. Fricchione. “If you are living with high levels of chronic stress, you need to try to find better ways to manage it.”

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