There are several brain fitness topics where we still see a large disconnect between research and popular knowledge, and a major one is the relationship between memory and stress. Caroline and I collaborated on this post to bring you some context and tips.
Our society has changed faster than our genes. Instead of being faced with physical, immediately life-threatening crises that demand instant action, these days we deal with events and illnesses that gnaw away at us slowly, that stress us out and that, believe it or not, end up hurting our memory and brain.
Dr. Robert Sapolsky, in an interview about his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, points out that humans uniquely “can get stressed simply with thought, turning on the same stress response as does the zebra.” But, the zebra releases the stress hormones through life-preserving action, while we usually just keep muddling along, getting more anxious by the moment.
What is the relationship between stress and memory? We all know chronic stress is bad for our heart, our weight, and our mood, but how about our memory? Interestingly, acute stress can help us focus and remember things more vividly. Chronic stress, on the other hand, reduce our ability to focus and can specifically damage cells in the hippocampus, a brain structure critical to encoding short term memory.
When is stress chronic? When one feels out of control. Irritable, anxious. While every individual varies in their response the type and quantity of stress, there are some things we can do to feel more in control of your environment. This sense of empowerment can lower stress, and as a result, help memory.
What are the best defenses against chronic stress, that will help our mind and memory remain healthy for life?
1- Exercise strengthens the body and can reduce the experience of stress, depression, and anxiety. Doing something cardiovascular at least twice a week is the minimum.
2- Relaxation through meditation, tai chi, yoga, or other techniques to slow respiration, slow metabolism, and release muscle tension. Simply investing 10 minutes per day can make a difference.
3- Biofeedback programs and games that provide real-time information and tracking, allowing one to learn effective techniques for reducing stress levels.
4- Appreciation. Make sure you appreciate the good things you have and have done, and your support group around you.
5- A good social network of friends, family, and even pets help foster trust, support, and relaxation.
6- This may be obvious…except that we may not do it precisely when we need it the most: Use a calendar to schedule important things. Give items a date and a priority.
7- This one too: Make a list of things that need to be done. Even if it’s a long list. It is rewarding to cross off items as you complete them.
8- Prioritize. Ask yourself how important something truly is to you. Maybe you’re stressing over something that you are better off just letting go. Do you really need to remember 25 new names from that party? Focus on the 5 you want to see again.
9- Get enough sleep so that you can recharge your batteries.
10- There is no solid evidence that Ginko Biloba helps. Of course, the placebo effect does, so if you are already taking it, you think it helps you, and you can afford it, well, just skip this point (which you will probably do, anyway). But please ask your doctor if you are taking prescription drugs; there may be interactions.
These are not magical cures, but habits that you can develop with practice to improve your memory and quality of life.
OK, my turn to practice #9.