Chronic Stress Could Make You Lose Your Memory

Experiencing chronic stress for weeks or months can change your brain. Side effects include memory loss, attention deficit, lack of focus, and poor decision making.
Chronic Stress Could Make You Lose Your Memory
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Chronic stress can affect your life without you even knowing it. Living under chronic stress is like living inside a high-speed train. At first, everything will seem normal and you’re thankful it goes so fast. Little by little, you realize you’re hardly enjoying the views and that your body and mind begin to resist the ride.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the well-known Buddhist monk, and author of many books, including Being Peace, states that your feelings and emotions are like clouds that come and go in the wind. This is true, and in the midst of that, it’s hard to find your balance, get a hold of your inner peace, and allow your mind to work as it should.

It’s not easy to handle the psychological effects that stress and anxiety do to your mind. The problem is, though, that experiencing chronic stress makes it even worse. Being in a state of chronic stress for long amounts of time will cause you a lot of harm and you’ll start seeing its hidden effects.

You need to realize that being in a stressful environment or under stressful situations can take a toll on your body. It can lead to muscle pain, digestive issues, sleep deprivation, and many other factors that affect your quality of life. However, there’s another thing worth noting: you can also experience memory loss.

“Many a calm river beings as a turbulent waterfall, yet none hurtles and foams all the way to the sea.”

-Mikhail Lermontov-

Chronic stress and gradual memory loss

When you’re stressed, you feel the world around you spinning too fast. However, it’s the opposite. Your cognitive skills get slowed down. It’s harder for you to focus, make decisions, and start a new task, among other things. Besides, your mind plays scary games with your head, creating doubts and threats that aren’t real.

It might seem redundant, but stress creates more stress. Thus, and even when you do notice the headaches, dizziness, and trouble sleeping, you don’t realize how harmful it is to your emotional and cognitive performance. Feeling unwell, helpless, unmotivated, and forgetting things are symptoms you need to take seriously.

Chronic stress and memory loss

Stress, from time to time, isn’t dangerous. In most cases, stress can help you achieve certain goals, overcome certain challenges, and make it easier for you to move on to things as a human being. Now, if that state becomes permanent, you’ll start seeing its hidden effects.

Doctor Jannine Wirkner from the University of Greifswald conducted studies that show something important. Acute stress, in short amounts, can improve your memory. This is great when you need to take tests. However, chronic stress and the constant release of cortisol makes it harder for you to create new memories.

Stress can interfere with every single one of your brain’s memory processes. This means it interrupts codification, consolidation, and recovery.

Remembering things can be difficult under chronic stress.

Chronic stress and its effects on the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex

On the other hand, a different study conducted by Dr. Kim Jeasokok from the University of Florida shed interesting findings. When cortisol levels are too high, the hippocampus suffers a change in its morphology. This brain structure, related to your memory and emotions, shrinks as a consequence of stress hormones.

Likewise, there’s another downside to chronic stress. Being in a constant state of alarm makes your amygdala stop your prefrontal cortex’s activities. This can make it harder to use logic, reflect on things, and make decisions.

The relationship between memory and stress

Chronic stress can make things more complex than you initially thought. Remember that it gets chronic when you spend weeks or months worrying about anything and being under a lot of pressure. This makes your memory fail. However, post-traumatic stress disorder makes you remember specific things more deeply.

  • When you go through dramatic experiences with a high emotional charge, your hippocampus retains those awful images and feelings indefinitely.
  • However, such experiences can also make it harder to create new memories. This gives way to reasoning issues such as flawed reflective and logical analysis, lack of focus, and poor decision making, among other things.
Meditation can help you handle chronic stress and improving your memory.

This shows how complex your brain can be. Now, despite these circumstances, traumas, and how chronic stress affects you, try to remember this. Your brain is like plastic, it can change and revert these effects.

Physical activities, psychological therapy, meditation, stress management, and focusing on a healthy lifestyle can help you improve the way you feel and brain plasticity. You need to start today!

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Wirkner, J., Ventura-Bort, C., Schwabe, L., Hamm, A. O., & Weymar, M. (2019). Chronic stress and emotion: Differential effects on attentional processing and recognition memory. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 107, 93–97. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.05.008
  • Kim, JJ y Diamond, DM (2002). El hipocampo estresado, la plasticidad sináptica y los recuerdos perdidos. Nature Reviews Neuroscience , 3 (6), 453–462.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.