We all know that stress can wreak havoc to our health in so many levels. From acne to heart disease, doctors say that there are simply so many ill effects that stress can bring. Did you know that it’s also something that can mess up with your memory? Continue reading to find out why.
But before we tackle that, it’s important for us to first discuss how your memory works, which comes in three stages: encoding, consolidation and retrieval.
Put simply, encoding is the process of receiving information which you wish to store in your memory. For instance, on your way home an attractive person on the train giving you his or her phone number. The moment you receive the information, it is stored in your short-term memory, or sometimes known as working memory.
What do you do in order to remember someone’s phone number? You repeat it several times in your mind. Doing this is what the process of consolidation is all about — you attempt to stabilize a memory trace. In a nutshell, you are stashing the phone number in your long-term memory. You can think of it as saving a file on a USB thumb drive.
When you get home that night, you forgot to call the individual who gave you his or her phone number because you’re simply too tired to reach for your phone. The next morning, you grab the cell phone and dial the person’s number — this is retrieving information that you have stored in your long-term memory the night before.
That’s basically how you remember a piece of information. While it’s true that this system works quite very well, the problem is it is very much susceptible to interference. If there’s some form of interference somewhere along the process of remembering and recalling information, a problem with your memory can strike.
For instance, you’re walking towards your apartment repeating the number of the attractive person you met on the train and suddenly you bump into a chatty friend. It’s very much likely for you to forget the number as soon as you’re bombarded with tons of information from the person in front of you.
Interference can come in so many different forms, and one of them is stress — and it’s something that can meddle with any of the three stages (encoding, consolidation and retrieval) of remembering any piece of information.
Based on the example given above, the friend you just bumped into on your way to your apartment can be regarded as a stressor. Clearly, he or she disrupted the process of you repeating the phone number in your mind, which is actually the consolidation phase. But a stressor can also hamper the process of encoding in the first place.
A colleague is telling you about the emergency meeting at 10 o’clock, but your mind is focused on the text message that you just received which says that your best friend since high school is getting a divorce.
More likely than not, you will not be able to step foot in the conference room when the clock strikes 10 because what your colleague told you was never encoded in the first place — the stressful text message that your best friend sent you interfered with the encoding process. With nothing encoded, there’s nothing to consolidate and retrieve.
Similarly, stress can also meddle with the retrieval process. Even if you know a piece of information by heart, it’s still very much possible for a stressor to keep you from successfully retrieving it from your long-term memory.
In conclusion, stress is something that can ruin your memory. If it seems like your memory is failing you as of late, assess your stress levels — if it’s been high for the past few days, chances are that there are simply too many stressors in your life that are affecting you negatively in all sorts of ways, including your ability to remember and recall things.