Do you forget things too often? You are not alone15.07.2022
While filling out an online form to register my son, I forgot his age. Is he 12 or 13 years old? I was stumped and decided to do the math. He was born December 2007, so it’s November 2020. 20 minus 7 = 12, so he’s 12. What’s the matter? I was just a few weeks away from turning fifty. My skin was definitely showing signs of age. My brain also started to wrinkle and sag. Had I reached an age when I was no longer young? My grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Is this a sign of dementia? Was it a stroke? Did my once reliable memory suddenly become weak, diseased, or old?
Before I fell down the terrifyingly dark rabbit hole in panic, the neuroscientist within me intervened like a superhero. You don’t have dementia. A stroke was not something you had. You’re young at 50. Stress is a common problem. Stress can cause a person’s memory to deteriorate.
Although temporary stress can help to form new memories, it can also slow down our ability to retrieve old memories. This is what happens to those who have ever choked on an exam they studied for. Although you knew the material well, it was too pressured to make you forget. Your brain couldn’t find the information it needed.
The day before the election, I had forgotten the age of my son. This single stressor, worrying about the fate of our country, was likely to have a significant impact on my ability to retrieve this simple memory. There was something else going on. I was in 2020 and, like many of you, I had been suffering from chronic, unrelenting stress ever since the Ides of March. That’s a terrible memory.
Stress was largely caused by external forces a million years ago. Your brain and body release stress hormones when you see a predator approaching or an enemy. This allows you to flee or fight. We weren’t running away from lions and tigers or bears in 2020, but we were able to imagine and worry and felt like we were running for our lives. A perceived lack of control, certainty, or social connection can cause psychological stress. Do you sound familiar? All three boxes are checked. Our thoughts could be our most dangerous predators.
The human physiological response is temporary and quick-on/quick off to stress. This allows us to respond to immediate threats or challenges. This is not a bad thing. This is a necessary response for us to function every day. We need it to make a Zoom presentation, stop unexpectedly, and get out of bed each morning to do online learning.
What if the stress you are feeling — whether it’s the climate change, the political divide or the pandemic? For many, our worrying and terrifying what-if thoughts are constant for over a year. The stress response shutoff valve can be essentially broken when this happens. Our brains remain flooded with stress hormones and are stuck in a constant runaway-train state.
This can be very detrimental to your memory. This will make it difficult to think clearly, form new memories, or retrieve old ones. Do you sound familiar? We can’t control vaccine distribution, the latest COVID mutations, politics, and the next natural catastrophe. What can we do to control the distribution of vaccines, the latest COVID mutation, politics, or the next natural disaster? Is it possible to forget where our phone is, how we got into the kitchen, who our spouse said, or how old our son?
Although we cannot escape the stressful world in which we live, we can significantly influence how our brain responds to it. Meditation, yoga, and exercise are proven to lower stress hormones and prevent stress-induced amnesia. Take a deep breath the next time you have trouble remembering a name, can’t recall how to reply to an email or are unable to figure out the age of your middle children. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy to worry about forgetting. Forgetting is a common occurrence. It will happen more if you stress about it.