What Do Studies Show About The Relationship Between Memory And Stress?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
Updated April 26, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Stress is often considered a part of being human. However, although stress is common and can be a normal response to life’s challenges, some people might not know it can be addressed or reduced. Side effects of chronic stress, like memory loss, can be manageable with support. Learning more about the relationship between stress and memory may help you develop an action plan for addressing your chronic stress.

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Relationship between stress and memory loss

Stress and memory loss are scientifically connected in the brain. In the book Neural Plasticity and Memory: From Genes to Brain Imaging, the author explains, "Experiencing an acute highly stressful situation can interfere with subsequent information processing. This holds particularly for those circumstances in which a stressed individual is required to retrieve previously stored information, while the acquisition of new information is shown to be particularly resistant to disruption in experimental animals." This research signifies how stressful situations make recalling memories and learning new information more difficult. 

The impact of stress on your brain

According to an article by Harvard Health Publishing, "Scientists have learned that animals that experience prolonged stress have less activity in the parts of their brain that handle higher-order tasks, [like] the prefrontal cortex, and more activity in the primitive parts of their brain that are focused on survival, [like] the amygdala."

Similar results have been found during testing with humans. The human body and nervous system is pre-configured for the "fight-flight-freeze" response that may have been more necessary for human ancestors. Historic humans faced life-threatening dangers that required them to fight or escape. However, many people do not live in this way in Western society. In modern times, it tends to be less common to experience life-threatening situations that warrant this stress response.

The fight or flight response releases endorphins in the brain, such as cortisol. Through action, your body uses up the cortisol and returns to baseline. However, if you're not facing a dangerous situation, cortisol levels can remain elevated and cause harm. While short-term stress may not be harmful, long-term, chronic stress that usually comes with elevated cortisol levels can lead to physical and mental health concerns.

Many studies, including one by the University of Iowa, have found a connection between high cortisol levels and impaired memory functions. In the study, researchers linked elevated amounts of cortisol to the gradual loss of synapses in the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that houses short-term memory.

Stress amid memory loss

Stress can cause memory loss, and memory loss may cause stress, further impacting the prefrontal cortex. For example, in those living with dementia and Alzheimer's, stress may be heightened due to difficulty understanding what was once understood. 

In situations where you cannot regain your memory function, try to work on lowering the stressors in your life. In addition, if you believe you might be experiencing severe memory loss, talk directly to your doctor about treatment options. A therapist may also be beneficial as you learn stress reduction techniques that can reduce acute stress in the short term and long term. 

Tips to reduce stress and rebuild memory function

Some people may feel proud of their stress, feeling that their overbooked schedule, constant work, and lack of time for relationships are signs of success. Stress has become normalized in many societies. Although there are positive forms of stress, long-term stress and a lack of self-care can have detrimental impacts when you slow down and take a moment to yourself.  

Science directly connects stress levels with impaired brain and memory function. In these cases, stress can make it difficult to recall positive memories, locate the information you need for work, or the ability to learn new skills. Below are a few ways to start overcoming stress in your daily life to reduce your cortisol and adrenaline levels and put your nervous system back into balance. 

Exercise more

Regular exercise has been connected with improved memory and an improvement in mood. Working out may be a place to start if you feel you've been struggling in this area. If you don't normally exercise or don't know how to begin, below are a few low-impact options that may still have benefits: 

  • Walking

  • Taking a short hike 

  • Swimming in a pond, lake, or river

  • Going tubing on the river or kayaking 

  • Dancing 

  • Yoga

  • Stretching

  • Jogging 

  • Going to the gym and using the treadmill or another low-impact machine

  • Following guided exercise videos

  • Walking up a hill or mountain trail for a view 

  • Walking your dog daily  

Practice mindfulness

A study by the University of California at Santa Barbara found that practicing mindfulness can improve memory. They split students into two groups. One group was given classes on mindfulness, and the others attended a nutrition class. Before and after the groups completed classes, they were given a test, and the test results improved for the group that completed mindfulness courses. They reported that the students also improved on working memory and focus tests.

Another study found that mindfulness and meditation were directly correlated with increased hippocampus size. The hippocampus is the brain region associated with cognitive function, learning, and memory. If you're looking to improve your memory, try mindfulness. You can look up guided meditations at home or meet with a therapist to try a mindfulness-based therapeutic modality that may help with learning and memory.

Get organized 

A lack of organization can often cause stress, even if it occurred due to stress in the first place. Sitting in a messy bedroom, ignoring clutter on your floor, or leaving dishes in the sink might make you feel unwell. Studies have also correlated a messy home to poor mental health and the potential for mental illness. These factors may all have a role in how you feel daily. 

If you're dealing with signs of memory loss, keep yourself organized. Having systems in place can make it easier for you to accomplish your goals. If you struggle to remember appointments, set up consultations, or clean your home, create a chart, calendar, or reminder system to help you organize your life in a way that doesn't take as much of your brain power. You can also take time to remove the items in your house, office, and bedroom you don't need.

Get enough sleep

Sleep is essential for almost every aspect of life, including stress levels, the ability to learn, memory, mental health, and public wellness. If you're not getting enough sleep, you might notice yourself reacting more harshly to stressors. It could also be more challenging to take in information. 

Try to get between seven and nine hours of sleep each night. You can also practice sleep hygiene by putting your devices away before bed, drinking a hot cup of tea, or ensuring the temperature in your room is ideal for sleeping. Talk to your doctor about support options if you struggle with falling or staying asleep. 

Improve your memory and enjoy a clear mind

Seek professional support 

If you are worried about memory loss or feel constantly overwhelmed by stress, consider talking to a mental health professional. There are several forms of treatment you can consider to alleviate stress and improve working memory, and if you're facing barriers to traditional in-person therapy, you can try formats like telehealth therapy, which allows you to speak with a therapist online. 

Online therapy has proven beneficial for individuals seeking help for several stress-related conditions and symptoms. Online cognitive-behavioral therapy can offer valuable suggestions for changes to reduce your stress level. Studies have found that online mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (I-MBCT) can reduce symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression and are as effective as in-person methods. 

Through a platform like BetterHelp, you can match with a licensed therapist to meet at a time convenient to you anywhere you have an internet connection. In addition, you can set reminders on your phone's calendar to prompt you when it is time for your appointment. If you use a therapy app, you can turn on notifications and email reminders to continue receiving therapy updates so you don't forget a session. 


Stress can have profound impacts on mental and physical health, including your short- and long-term memory. If you're experiencing stress and memory loss, you're not alone. Consider contacting a mental health professional, like a therapist, for guidance and support.

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