Memory is the process in which the mind interprets, stores, and retrieves information and memories are described as "a mental representation...made retrievable for future use." But those memories can become affected in our brains by the traumas of a stressful life.
What exactly are those effects?
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How stress affects memory formation
The relationship between stress and memory goes both ways.
Memory formation is generally understood to be a two-stage process.The first stage of memory is sensory in which information from the senses become an impression. The second stage has to do with entering the impression into storage.
Intense stress just before that first stage has been found to impede the creation of memories. However, if the stress were to occur after the memory is initially stored, it may, in fact, make the memory more intense so that recall is better. Stress hormones can increase your memory for stressful or traumatic events because they exist to help you survive.
If you’ve ever found yourself “forgetting” a memory you vividly remember, it could be because stress can also interfere with memory recall.
Stress takes up a lot of resources from your brain and interferes with your capacity to encode new information. When you lose the memory for some events or ideas, it may not be that they were forgotten, but that you never really stored them in the first place because of distraction from stress. Or you may have stored them but lost the key to finding them in storage.
Stress derived from memory loss
Memory is part of the orientation system of the body, along with hearing and sight. It’s one of the many ways that your brain can find its bearings in the world. That’s why memory loss can cause disorientation and the accompanying panic of not knowing where one is.
Clinicians at the University of Gothenburg reported in 2017 that they are seeing a growing number of patients who suffer extreme stress and fatigue because they believe that their memory is failing them, although few are actually entering early stages of dementia.
Forgetfulness can be a normal part of aging caused by changes in the brain due to the aging process, or possibly due to underlying disorders or medicinal side effects. Intense emotional trauma interferes with recall or memory formation, but feeling that memory is not working as usual adds significant stress which then may further interfere with memory formation and recall.
Limiting and managing the stress in your life is an important aspect of memory because of the effects that stress can have on it. While slight forgetfulness is a normal part of aging, don’t let it snowball into more stress than can result in more memory loss.