​​Why Stress Relief Is Key to Better Memory, According to a Neuroscientist

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I am the kind of person who says some version of, "Have you seen [my phone, the remote, my hairbrush, etc]?" a truly annoying number of times a day. I also have generalized anxiety disorder. And as it turns out, these two things are probably related—because anxiety impairs memory. "If anxiety is affecting your daily functioning and causing a major problem in your work and personal life, your memory may begin to be impaired," says Alison Seponara, LPC, author of the upcoming book The Anxiety Healer's Guide. "You may frequently lose things, not remember where you parked your car, repeat a conversation, or forget what food you need to buy." (Yep, sounds familiar.)

When you're anxious, your body reacts to real or perceived threats and starts pumping out adrenaline and cortisol, says Seponara. (Cortisol can also interfere with memory.) Feelings of anxiety tax the body's resources, so when it  persists for a long period of time, it can impair memory, she says. "To remember, we need to attend," adds cognitive neuroscientist Moshe Bar, PhD, author of MINDWANDERING: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity. "Anxiety diminishes our attentional powers. An individual with anxiety tends to attend to her worries and fears and will have much less cognitive capability to remember anything else." This is true for clinical and chronic anxiety, as well as everyday anxiety and stress. "The more anxious we are, the more destructive is this connection," says Dr. Bar.

Experts In This Article
  • Alison Seponara, LPC, Alison Seponara, LPC is an anxiety healer and therapist, and author of 'The Anxiety Healer's Guide'.
  • Moshe Bar, PhD, Moshe Bar, PhD is the author of 'MINDWANDERING: How Your Constant Mental Drift Can Improve Your Mood and Boost Your Creativity.'

"Some anxieties are justified, but the rest can be recognized and minimized so that they are less of a burden on our ability to experience and remember," he continues, noting that running and meditation help ease his anxious thoughts. But you should find what works for you. Seponara recommends physical exercise, as well as mental exercise (think: brain games like crossword puzzles and Sudoku). She also encourages eating lots of fruits and veggies. "Substances such as vitamins A, B, C, and E, carotenoids,  flavonoids; and polyphenols are shown to reduce memory loss," she explains. Drinking more tea can also help your memory, she says, pointing to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Aging that shows that drinking tea regularly can lower the risk of cognitive impairment by 50 percent. Seponara also advises limiting alcohol consumption, as drinking too much can lead to confusion and memory loss. Lastly, prioritize sleep. "Seven to nine hours of sleep is needed for most adults to get sufficient rest to retain memory at their highest level," she says.

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