How does stress affect your brain and memory?

So many people seem to live under constant stress these days – financial challenges, family tensions, the news, job demands, and ceaseless demands on our time. This on-going stress can have a serious impact on our ability to think clearly, make good decisions, and even harm our brain and memory over time.

What’s more, studies show that stress, if prolonged, can lead to depression and a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease and chronic anxiety. When we are stressed the brain’s limbic system, responsible for memory, learning, and emotions, triggers the ‘fight-flight response’, increasing the production of adrenaline and cortisol which, in turn, increases heart rate, metabolism, blood pressure, and so on.

These are useful if we have to run for our lives from attack, but when we are under constant stress the body is unable to go back to normal. High adrenaline and cortisol levels block the forming of new connections between brain cells in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for encoding new memories. This affects memory.

So what can we do?

1. Decide not to ‘just live with it’, but to protect your brain from the damaging stress.

2. Exercise. Aerobic exercise helps build new cells and connections in the brain, promotes good sleep, reduces depression and anxiety, and releases endorphins – the ‘feel good’ hormones.

3. Relaxation. What helps you to quieten your mind and leaves you with a sense of well-being? Meditation, a quiet walk, reading and so on, can decrease your blood pressure, respiration rate, muscle tension and metabolism and reduce your overall stress.

4. Socialise. One of the awful things that stress does is cause us to isolate ourselves. When you feel pressured personal connections and enjoying social opportunities are amongst the first casualties. Engaging with other people is critically important for physical, mental, and brain health. Create an enjoyable environment encompassing friends, family, and pets to combat stress.

5. Take control of your stress. Address the underlying issues. If it would help, find a helpful counsellor or someone you can ‘download’ to. Learn to say ‘no’!

6. Smiles and laughter. What a wonderful antidote to stress laughter is. It makes us instantly feel better and studies show that it can reduce the stress hormones.

7. Think positively. Taking stock of the positive things in your life and learning to live with an ‘attitude of gratitude’, can improve your ability to manage stress and build brain and memory resilience.

Say goodbye to stress and delight in well-being, a resilient, alert brain and a sharp memory.


By Dr. Allison Lamont 

Founder and memory consultant at the Christchurch Memory Clinic.

Read more from Allison here

After caring for their mother, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 92, Dr. Allison and her sister, Gillian, formed the Brain and Memory Foundation to disseminate information of memory loss prevention. Click here to visit the website