Memory and stress – some helpful advice

An increasing number of people are seeking help for memory problems. Many symptomatic people who seek treatment do not have degenerative brain disease, nor do they progress to dementia. So, why are they worried?

Being worried about memory is common. A significant percentage of the population, across a range of age groups, express concern about their memory, with many describing themselves as forgetful.

At a recent employee forum, Dr Brian Long, Acting Deputy Director, Psychology and clinical neuropsychologist, spoke about the effect of stress on memory and provided advice on managing minor memory problems.

“Memory lapses are normal, they are part of the experience of normal memory function,” he said.

The most common example of a memory lapse is forgetting a person’s name and struggling to recall it when needed. It is also normal to forget where you parked your car or the drive to your destination, to forget why you entered a room, events from the distant past, or even temporarily forget something familiar like your PIN number. These things are normal lapses in memory function.

While minor memory lapses are normal, factors that can contribute to memory decline include:

  • normal aging
  • heavy alcohol and illicit drug use
  • medications
  • pain
  • sleep disturbance and fatigue
  • metabolic illnesses
  • neurological illnesses
  • stress, grief and anxiety.

Memory failures become increasingly common under stress, which hinders effective use of our cognitive resources and crowds our mental landscape. Often in these circumstances, memory lapses are due to lapses in attention, meaning information is not properly encoded.

So, how do we manage memory lapses in our day-to-day lives? Dr Long provided some suggestions which can help:

  • reduce stress – this includes managing your workload, being kinder to yourself, exercising, practising mindfulness and connecting with social supports.
  • use memory aids – taking notes, setting reminders using your phone or calendar. Take the pressure off your memory by emptying your brain onto a piece of paper or a note in your phone.
  • remember that memory lapses are a normal part of stress and anxiety you may experience.
    don’t expect to have a perfect memory!

Dr Long also recommended a book by neuropsychologist Dr Anne Unkenstein, Memory Wise: How memory works and what to do when it doesn’t, and a mindfulness meditation app called ‘Waking Up with Sam Harris’.

The key point Dr Long made was that it is normal to experience small, nuisance-level memory lapses when you are feeling stressed or anxious.

If you find yourself in these circumstances, you can access health and wellbeing resources on the Monash Health COVID-19 website, and services such as Call a Psychologist and EAP. If you missed Dr Long’s presentation, you can watch it here. Be sure to tune in to our weekly Thursday employee forums for more wellbeing presentations.

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