There are times I’d prefer to remain ignorant. That was my reaction when I read the WSJ article, Does Being Stressed Out Make You Forgetful? It rang all too true for me. Does it seem to you that the more you have going on, the more forgetful you are? Or perhaps it depends on the type of stress in your life. Dr. Sinha, a Yale professor, explains there are two kind of stress—controllable and uncontrollable—and both leave marks on the brain.
Controllable stress at work could be not making time to rehearse before a presentation. In that case, your “mind will remember that experience, and you will allow for more time…” to prepare before you make your next presentation. I’d consider that a beneficial mark on the brain. Less beneficial are uncontrollable stresses, like the death of a loved one or the loss of a job, which also leave marks on the brain.
Dr. Sinha shares this example:
“The brain grasps an uncontrollable threat very quickly and can retrieve relevant information immediately when presented with the same acute stress again... When you are out alone on a street at night, your stress response might help keep you alert the next time you are alone and feel in danger. ‘That experience sharpens the mind and encodes an impression,’ she says.”
Now that example doesn’t seem too threatening to me, but the link between stress and memory sure does. Studies show that “multiple simultaneous stresses…lead to poor memory retrieval.”
That would certainly explain why last year was such a struggle for me. When my Mom’s health was deteriorating (uncontrollable stress) and I was running back and forth to doctors’ appointments, talking to my sister daily about what to do next, and contacting EAP and eventually hospice—all the while working a pretty demanding job—I forgot plenty of important things. I failed to include my usual meticulous documentation when I sent the tax paperwork to our accountant; I missed paying at least one bill, and I backed into the garage door one morning because I flat-out forgot to hit the garage door opener like I routinely do before even getting in the car.
Dr. Sinha believes we can come back from those kinds of stress-related memory losses, but the most disturbing bit in the article was the relationship between stress and dementia. That’s the part I’d just as soon not know:
“Recent studies have shown the risk for dementia and other memory-related illnesses rises significantly the more people encounter uncontrollable stress. Dr. Sinha says studies using brain scans show that loss of a significant other or witnessing violence does take a toll. ‘Research has shown that whole branches of brain cells can shrink and start to disappear,’ she says. ‘That doesn’t mean that if you get divorced, you’ll get dementia. But the risks are there.’”
The brain can heal itself in many cases, but studies have not yet determined which types of memory loss are reversible. We can’t avoid controllable and uncontrollable stress, but we can manage stress by doing all the things we read about regularly: eat right, get plenty of sleep, exercise and limit our multi-tasking. How many times have we heard these health and stress-reduction tips? It’s not that we forget them—we just choose to ignore them. Well, now I’m inspired. I already follow every one of those tips except the piece about avoiding multitasking. Ohmmmm….Do you hear me chanting, “One thing at a time, one thing at a time?”