Impact of Stress on Memory

Impact of Stress on Memory



Impact of Stress on Memory

The different sectors of the brain react differently when they encounter stress. These stressors have different effects on the long-term and short-term mental aptitude of people based on where the stress originated from, how long the stress has been endured, how intense the stress is, and the occurrence of the stressor in relation to the memory phase. The limbic system is responsible for anxiety and stress. This system has a major effect on memory and feelings, and when a section of the brain is stirred by stress, the limbic system reacts by triggering secretions from the nervous system that involuntarily assisted in regulating the metabolic system. It is also imperative to differentiate between short-term and long-term memory. Short-term, active or working memory is only usable for a few seconds. It contains information in a readily available location for the brain to use. The memory span for the short-term memory is very restricted even though the short-term can be expanded to be increasingly accommodative.

The consequences of stress on memory include obstructions on an individual’s ability to encode and recall information. When a person experiences stress, the body responds by producing stress hormones into the blood system. Stress can trigger severe and chronic transformations in several brain areas that can cause long-standing injuries. The constant secretion of large amounts of stress hormones affects memory in a negative way. However, there are a few cases where stress can have a positive impact on individuals. Particularly, parts of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. Cortisol is a common hormone that affects most people negatively (Brunner et al, 2005).

This hormone simultaneously assists and impairs the effects of stress on the brain. Biologically, cortisol is a known for stress. Under normal instances, the hippocampus controls the secretion of cortisol because it has plentiful receptors that are receptive to stress hormones. Nevertheless, an excess secretion of cortisol impairs the actions of the hippocampus by stopping an individual from making new memories or even recovering the existing ones. Stress hormones also prevent the hippocampus from getting sufficient energy by redirecting glucose levels to the nearby muscles.

Positive Effects of Stress on Memory

It is imperative to realize that stress can be either negative or positive. While stress is naturally associated with negative impacts among human beings, there are several positive effects of stress on individuals. There are little researches and studies on the positive effects. Stress in itself triggers tension and nervous feelings among people, and it is extremely difficult for stress to be considered useful or beneficial (Brunner et al, 2005). However, stress has been discovered to be medicinal and soothing for employees and individuals. The media, the medical sector and the public have discussed at length about negative impacts of stress. However, stress has been linked to increased psychological development and productivity. Studies done on employees revealed that when exposed to acute stress, people gain increased memory retention and learning capacity. These positive reactions were the result of secretion of the hormone corticosterone that generates protective effects on the cortex (Brunner et al, 2005). Cortisol has the same effect on the human brain and this point towards the beneficial effects such as increased smartness (Steinmetz & Kensinger, 2010).

Concerning memory benefits, people have sharper memories when exposed to stressful situations. Increased hormonal flow into the front cortex of the brain regulates the emotions and cognitive abilities and this generates an increased working memory. Positive stress can be useful in preventing the outbreak of common diseases such as colds (Brunner et al, 2005). By pushing the body to the extreme limits, stress is effective in keeping the body in fit condition. By pushing the body, stress boosts the immune levels and these are important for fighting pathogens. Stress triggers the production of regulatory hormones in adrenal glands that restore stability in the immune system. After surgery, short amounts of stress can trigger a quick recovery among patients. Lastly, stressful situations are crucial in strengthening the memories of first impressions (Bermúdez-Rattoni, 2007).

Stressful situations contribute to two biological reactions; autonomic sympathetic system and the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal axis. These two steps trigger the secretion of cortisol and epinephrine that induce the secretion of noradrenaline in the amygdala. The combination of these reactions contributes towards heightened memory. These medicinal benefits of stress reinforce the idea that stress can be beneficial to the memory and the individual. Other positive outcomes from stressful situations include increased creativity, heightened intellect and motivation to engage in different activities. Apart from these positive effects, there are negative effects of stress on the memory.

Negative Effects of Stress on Memory

Stress has critical consequences on the memory of an individual. The extent of the damage on the memory depends on the psychological and mental reactions of the bоdіеѕ to stress and the coping mechanisms of each individual. Short-term and long-term stresses have different effects on the memory of individuals. Short-term stress that typically lasts for several hours is highly damaging to the communication patterns in the brain, particularly in areas that are linked to memory and learning. While long-term stress has been proved to have these adverse effects, short-term stress has been discovered to have similar effects. In a study done by Baram and other Irvine scholars, it was discovered that instead of assessing the effect of cortisol, stress triggered the secretion of corticotrophin that interrupted the process of collecting and retaining memories (Vučinić & Andjus, 2005). The release of corticotrophin results in the destruction of dendritic spines that obstructs the ability of the brain to store any memories.

Stress has been flagged as being detrimental as it lowers attention, interrupts the individual’s focus and renders considerable injuries on the working memory. This refers to the short-term management of information that allows individuals to engage in daily activities. The working memory in human beings and is flexible and short-term. It allows the brain to contain a large quantity of information in an accessible area where it can carry out complicated tasks. Without the working memory, human beings can easily forget most of the things that they did within the first five minutes. Neurons in the prefrontal cortex are responsible for storing the information they receive for short periods.

The brain can store information in this area and erase it when new information has to be recorded. Without the proper operation of the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for memory, individuals cannot retain what they learn and end up being extremely absent-minded and forgetful. The exposure of individuals to stress distracts the neurons’ activities of storing and relaying information when required. Consequently, they lose the information they recorded, and for the individual, this means memory loss. In summary, stress suppresses the activity of neurons in the prefrontal cortex (Bermúdez-Rattoni, 2007).

In addressing the effect of acute stress on the long-term and short-term memory, it is imperative that acute stress be defined in its entirety. Acute stress is an immediate threat on the mental state of a human being. In a manner different to chronic stress, acute stress is not consistent and the physiological excitement connected with acute stress is much less challenging (Howes, 2007). The studies on acute stress have revealed conflicting results with one view arguing that acute stress can damage memory, while other parties argue that acute stress increases memory. However, it is evident that acute stress has far greater effects on the brain and memory when compared to other forms of stress.

Effect of Short-Term Stress on Memory

With short-term stress, the common reaction among individuals occurs in the form of physiological and mental changes that transform their behaviors and assists in superseding the challenges. After the stress transforms into chronic, the similar mental changes become harmful to the body and mind. Chronic stress activates the pituitary, hypothalamic, and adrenal glands trigger secretion of the hormone cortisol that act to respond to the stress. When an individual begins to realize the impacts of stress on their brain, it has developed into chronic stress. This triggers an over emission of hormones responsible for stress handling, as it is secreted to tackle the surplus cortisol in the body (Howes, 2007). When the brain encounters this excess in hormonal activity, the resultant reaction is confusion, delusion and loss of memory. The overexposure of these numerous hormones damages several areas of the brain such as the hippocampus. The hippocampus is responsible for regulating the activities of the hypothalamus that control the secretion of cortisol.


Bermúdez-Rattoni, F. (2007). Neural plasticity and memory: From genes to brain imaging. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Brunner, R., Schaefer, D., Hess, K., Parzer, P., Resch, F., & Schwab, S. (2005). Effect of corticosteroids on short-term and long-term memory. Neurology, 64, 2, 335-7.

Howes, M. B. (2007). Human memory: Structures and images. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Steinmetz, K. M., & Kensinger, E. A. (2010). Emotion’s effects on attention and memory: Relevance to posttraumatic stress disorder. Hauppauge, N.Y: Nova Science Publisher’s.

Vučinić, Z., & Andjus, R. K. (2005). Biophysics from molecules to brain: In memory of Radoslav K. Andjus. New York: New York Academy of Sciences.

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