Stress is a way of life for most of us, but its effects can be wide-ranging, from physiological to behavioural. Some of the most commonly-reported effects of stress relate to memory and concentration, and although almost all of us will have experienced reduced concentration and a poor memory in times of stress, it’s all too easy to wonder if you’re going mad.
Fortunately, you’re almost certainly not losing your mind, but if stress is having that great an impact on you, it’s definitely time for you to stop and stand still. The cognitive signs of stress include difficulty in organising your thoughts, confusion, forgetfulness and deficits in attention, and a huge amount of research has shown that even mild stress can reduce our ability to learn new information by 10%. Interestingly, we are less likely to then be able to recall that information later on, even when the stress has passed. So, what are the mechanisms at play?
Fundamentally, our cognitive processes are heavily reliant to on our ability to attend to new information. If you’re not paying attention when someone talks to you you’re much less likely to be processing what they’re saying in your short-term memory and, if you haven’t stored it, you’ll have a tough task trying to recall it later. Problems with attention will almost certainly result in short- and long-term memory deficits.
When we learn new information, it is processed in the prefrontal cortex area of the brain. Although several processes occur in this region, brain imaging studies have shown that it is involved in both short-term memory (also known as ‘working memory’) and decision-making. In times of stress, the prefrontal cortex is flooded with cortisol and noradrenaline as our bodies prepare for the fight or flight impulse. As a result, there is reduced capacity for new information to be attended to, processed and learnt. The result is that we will be unable to make clear decisions based on the best available evidence because our brains have not processed that information in a way which is useful. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that people who are experiencing stress make unwise decisions, or decisions that are out of character – they’re doing so when they may have missed information crucial to that process of decision-making. Again; little wonder that they – and those around them – might think there is something seriously wrong.
Brief spells of stress – whether work-related or otherwise – are unavoidable and, hopefully, the impact on cognition won’t be too catastrophic. However, chronic stress has been associated with significant impairments in cognitive ability, and, over time, these impairments may start to have a very real and negative impact on your life. It’s important that you try to manage stress when it occurs in order that you can reduce the effect it has on your work, relationships and long-term brain function.