Stress and Memory

September 24, 2012

Many employees perform well under pressure, but chronic stress can have a negative effect on the brain’s ability to store or access memories. The World Health Organization estimates excessive stress costs American businesses up to $300 billion each year with as many as 66 percent of workers reporting difficulty focusing on tasks at work due to stress1.

In order to form memories, our brains form thicker communication lines between neurons. When we recall previous experiences, connections in the brain recreate or reconstruct the sequence of neurons involved in the previous experience. When stress is introduced, the body releases epinephrine and cortisol, or stress hormones. According to research, moderate to strong feelings of acute stress can be good for memory formation as long as the stressor lasts for a brief period of time and gradually subsides. During this time, the hormones help make the connections or communication lines clearer for that particular stressful episode2.

Epinephrine and cortisol affect the area of the brain responsible for high-level functions, such as working memory and decision-making, as well as mental flexibility and attention. Repeated stress diminishes the capacity of important receptors to coordinate these important tasks. The loss of these receptors to chronic stress may be a significant factor in memory impairment over time3.

Decision making, for example, is significantly affected when dealing with a stressful situation. According to a study earlier this year4, researchers discovered that stress helped individuals learn and adapt to information gained from positive feedback. However, information gathered from negative feedback was more likely to be ignored and given less credence when making a final decision, impacting the quality of the final conclusion to the task.

When experiencing stress, the human brain typically takes a “longer” learning route, engaging a different part of the brain when trying to strategize. As a result, the brain activates the region responsible for unconscious learning, rather than the area for long-term memory, inhibiting the brain’s ability to store the information for an extended period of time and recall it instantly.

Taking the time to manage stress and harnessing its positive effects – crisper thinking, faster response times – has a positive impact both on the work environment and the brain’s health as it ages. In addition to reducing stress levels, memory can also be improved by quitting smoking5, ensuring workers are engaged in their work and show a continued interest in success6 and even taking the time to regularly exercise to both improve memory and reduce anxiety7. More employees report the negative effects of continued stress – 21 percent attributed errors and missed deadlines to stress – increasing the need for stress management to ensure constant business growth and lasting memories as workers age.

Written by Jim Lindberg, M.D., Hoag Executive Health Chief of Service