If you’ve noticed changes in your memory, stress could be a factor. Long-term stress may eventually change your brain in ways that affect your memory. To understand why stress affects thinking and memory, it’s important to understand a little about how the brain works.
Neuroplasticity (also known as brain plasticity) allows the brain to reconstruct and rewire itself based on behavioral, environmental, and neural changes. Harvard Medical School professors Dr. Kerry Ressler and Dr. Jill Goldstein note that when one area of the brain is engaged, the other parts may not have the energy to perform their own essential tasks. For example, when we experience dangerous or emotionally taxing situations, “the amygdala (the part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) may take over, leaving the parts of your brain that help to store memories and perform higher-order tasks with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done.”
Dr. Majid Fotuhi concludes that stress along with six other modifiable risk factors (obesity, smoking, diabetes, insomnia, sleep apnea, and depression) contribute to some degenerative diseases. At our BrainFutures conference, he noted that these factors are responsible for 50% of Alzheimer’s cases in the U.S.
Here’s something to remember about stress and brain plasticity. Brain plasticity enables you to adjust how your body and brain responds to stress, meaning that while stress can cause damaging changes to your brain, it can also motivate you to make positive lifestyle changes. How? Kessler and Epstein suggest protecting yourself from damaging stress by implementing the following coping techniques: