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The impact of stress on your memory

Do you find yourself regularly forgetting where you put the keys? Or do you often walk into a room only to forget what you were going in there for? When we’re experiencing stress, our memory can suffer and it might feel a bit like a cloud is hovering over your brain—you can’t quite think clearly or retrieve information from your memory as efficiently.

This is because when we’re experiencing stress, our body is geared towards survival. In response to worries or perceptions of pressure and urgency, stress hormones are released and these travel throughout the body, including to the brain, to communicate a ‘danger’ signal. To your body, all stress equals danger and so it directs more resources to the essential processes necessary for survival—and less towards the ‘nice to have, but not essential’ functions. Remember, your body always has your back and is doing its best to help you stay alive, based on the messages it is receiving. 

So what can you do?


We can’t always change our circumstances, but we can alter how our body is responding to them through the way that we breathe. Breathing diaphragmatically is a powerful way to activate the calm arm of your nervous system. Commit to 20 long, slow breaths at a certain time (or several times) each day. Linking it to another activity or task that you do every day can help to make it a habit so you might like to do it when you are boiling the kettle, for example. You might also like to practice diaphragmatic breathing any time you notice you are feeling stressed. Be kind and patient with yourself if this way of breathing doesn’t come naturally at first—you may not have breathed in this way for a long time and so it may take some practice, just like any skill.

Increase your nourishment

It is not only psychological stress that can impact our memory and brain function. The stress of poor nutrition can also play a role, and it’s often when people are under a lot of stress that their food choices tend to be less than ideal. This is problematic because the body requires even more nutrients when we’re churning out stress hormones. Focus on including more real, whole foods in your day but be mindful that you aren’t creating more overwhelm by trying to overhaul everything at once. It can be more sustainable to start with one or two small changes and building from there. A good aim can be to add an extra serve of green leafy vegetables each day. Or, perhaps you decide to swap biscuits at morning tea to some fruit, such as some berries.

Prioritise sleep

When we’re highly stressed, our sleep quality can often suffer—and along with it, our memory and mood. Adults require 7-9 hours of sleep each night and if we’re not well rested, we cannot expect to function at our best. Try to listen to your body—is it telling you that you need more rest than usual? While it can be tempting to stay up late to get more things done (particularly if you are stressed because you perceive there isn’t enough time), prioritising your sleep can help you to be more productive in the long run. If you’re having trouble sleeping restoratively, check out my tips here.

Focus on things that are in your control

Focusing on the things that you can control, rather than those that are outside of your control, can help you to better manage your stress. Bring awareness to how you are responding to stressful situations, and whether your actions are really supporting you or not. Are they helping to buffer the stress or are they adding to it? Routine can also be quite helpful, particularly if your stress is related to situations that involve some uncertainty or overwhelm. It doesn’t have to be big—some people even find that making their bed every day after they get up provides a sense of normality and a little bit of momentum for a productive day.

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