The Impacts of Stress on Human Memory


Several factors, including non-cognitive aspects, influence the optimal performance of human memory. Anxiety and stress contribute to the poor functioning of an individual’s memory. In all these situations, the brain plays a meaningful role in comprehending the effects of stress on memory. The brain can receive and send signals to various parts of the body through the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems in stressful circumstances. The biological stress cascade has intricate nervous structures, including the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus, which play a central role in managing chronic and acute stress in the brain. Several chemicals such as cortisol, epinephrine, and corticotrophin are also discharged by the body during the stress response process. Stress detrimentally impacts both instant and long-term memories in different ways. The stressors can influence the immediate and lasting memory capability differently based on their origin, duration, intensity, and timing when they happen in the memory stage.


Human memory performance can be impacted by several factors, encompassing non-cognitive elements such as the emotional condition of the test-taker. In the mental realm, principal factors that affect memory functioning comprise anxiety and stress (Lukasik et al., 2019). While more distinct symptoms on all these aspects are associated with impaired mental performance, their impacts are less strong when investigating memory in non-clinical people. The brain plays a significant role in comprehending the impacts of stress on memory. It is a multifaceted organ at the core of the human neurobiological system. Composed of several neurons, it continually receives and sends signals to various parts of the body through the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. Based on different types of stressors, the human memory, which can be intermediate or long-term, can deteriorate in potential. Biological stress cascade, learning theories, and extinction after tension are effectively integrated into explaining the relationship between stress and cognition performance. The research presents deep insights into the impacts of stress on memory.

Psychological Stress Response

The body’s response to stress encompasses an intricate retort coupled with stimulation of peripheral nervous structures and precise circuits in mind. Most of the non-aligned circuits can not only process information but also ultimately impact the level and direction of initiation of peripheral functional systems (McBurney et al., 2020). The human’s central nervous system, comprising the spine and brain, alongside the peripheral nervous structure, performs many functions.

Primarily, the brain has many lobes such as the temporal, parietal, occipital, and frontal sections. First, the temporal section is most remarkably linked to storing remembrance. Particularly, the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and hippocampus contribute to chronic and acute stress in the brain (Quaedflieg & Schwabe, 2018). The hippocampus, the principal memory center, is situated in the medial segment of the temporal lobe and handles predominantly long-term and special memory. The amygdala, positioned deep inside the temporal part, handles the emotive memory, such as fear conditioning and consolidation (Ferry, 2017). The prefrontal cortex plays the difficult and goal-oriented roles, as well as helping the amygdala from overstretching to the stress reaction.

The two main systems triggered during stress are the sympathetic branch and the neuroendocrine. Sympathetic is stirred by stimulating stressful situations while parasympathetic mediates vegetative roles such as digestion, growth, and relaxing in individuals. The parasympathetic process enables projections linked to nearly all organs in the body responsible for discharging norepinephrine (Quaedflieg & Schwabe, 2018). An essential forecast of the sympathetic process relies on the inputs directed to the medulla in the adrenal glands, where noradrenaline and adrenaline hormones are produced and channeled into the bloodstream. Moreover, reactions to stress are prompted by the start of the sympathetic process, comprising high blood pressure and heart rate, increased muscle tension, rising glucose levels, and sweating.

The body has several chemicals that are responsible for stress response. For instance, glucocorticoids, steroids synthesized in the adrenal gland, releases cortisol when the body recognizes threat (Drexler et al., 2020). When the brain attempts to pass a signal to the rest of the body, the primary cortisol will obstruct the capability of the neurotransmitter while communicating its message. The procedure makes it hard to obtain the information for long-term remembrance. To attain this process, cortisol is triggered through an elegant process that begins with the hypothalamus signaling the pituitary gland to discharge the chemical useful for the stress reaction. In a couple of minutes, the released substance passes through the adrenal cortex, which then secrets cortisol for dissemination throughout the body (Drexler et al., 2020). The distribution of cortisol significantly happens through the bloodstream to effectively cover every part of the body.

Other vital chemicals used by the body during the stress response process are epinephrine and corticotrophin. First, corticotrophin is released in the hypothalamus when the body responds to anxiety and stress, while epinephrine, a form of adrenaline, is discharged by the adrenal glands. Epinephrine informs the body to raise its blood pressure, heart rate and breathing (McBurney et al., 2020). The process, therefore, involves more oxygen usage in the muscle and mind, eliciting the sympathetic flight or fight response to happen. After the body has received considerable volumes of cortisol, it mechanically tells itself on the need to eliminate steroids. Consequently, hormones are discharged and conveyed to the brain and adrenal glands to rid surplus cortisol. The process completes when the hormones transport abundant cortisol to the kidneys for elimination and reinstate the body’s desired equilibrium.

The Harmful Effects of Stress on Memory

Stress detrimentally impacts both instant and long-term memories in different ways. Fundamentally, the stressors can impact the immediate and lasting capability differently based on their origin, duration, intensity, and timing when they happen in the memory stage. Mostly, the limbic system, which manages nervousness and tension, has a strong impact on emotions and memory (American Psychological Association, 2018). When a section of the brain is activated by strain, the limbic system reacts through its autonomic nervous process, making the endocrine glands spontaneously control the body’s metabolic system.

The Yerkes-Dodson theory illustrates the connection between memory and stress. The model posits that in low levels of stress, memory collection is improved. However, once it hits a certain level and the stress increases, the capacity to recall and execute memories from both long-term and temporal recollections becomes debilitated (Marr et al., 2018). The process shows why finalizing whether an activity will become a memory or not anchors in the amount of stress at the period the event happened. With instant stress, an individual might encounter physiological alterations that improve behavior and assist in overriding challenges. However, once the stress transits to chronic, those similar physiological transformations that increased behavior becomes harmful to the body (Miller, 2020). The situation happens due to the stimulation of the pituitary, adrenal glands, and hypothalamic that cause discharge of cortisol in responding to stress.

When an individual begins to see the impacts of stress in mind, it portrays the existence of chronic anxiety. The situation can lead to over secretion of anxiety hormones, as the body attempts to fix superfluous cortisol and maintain a state of equilibrium. Moreover, when the body experiences an adrenaline hurry, it also meets hypertension, augmented abdominal fat, reduced bone density; all these are harmful to the body (American Psychological Association, 2018). Therefore, such encounters trigger the sympathetic nervous process. Specifically, the sympathetic stress process allows and prepares the body for flight or fight response, while the parasympathetic system strives to make the mind digest and rest. However, overexposure to such a detrimental experience on chronic stress can cause severe brain damage, particularly the hippocampus.

When the hypothalamus identifies a threat, it prompts the pituitary glands to release a hormone that makes the adrenal glands discharge cortisol. Notably, once the required level of cortisol is attained, the hippocampus automatically signals the hypothalamus to switch off the synchronic mechanism that leads to the discharge of this important chemical (American Psychological Association, 2018). Moreover, when the brain is over impacted by the consequences of cortisol, the hippocampus can be injured through the neuron death process.

Notably, instances of acute stress can lead to diminished memory quality. During stressful circumstances, the mind moves from discerning flexibly to habitual thinking (Marr et al., 2018). For instance, suppose you are not peckish yet occasionally receive the urge to bite some food when you pass by an eatery displaying some enchanting food. Therefore, this habitual style of imagining is increased by stress. During acute stress, an individual is more likely to branch in such a restaurant and eat. Unlike flexible thinking, the habitual manner of discerning tends to be more firm and depicts less concentration on complex tasks. The shifting process is easily adjusted due to fewer cognitive challenges (Marr et al., 2018). Moreover, procedure saves the mind from high mental resources as well as helps to avoid delays, especially in conditions requiring swift action. The habitual procession may not necessarily lower brain performance but can cause difficulties in applying learning to novel contexts or stimuli.

Effective timing of acute stressors has a critical role in establishing whether it hurts or helps human memory. In reality, this infers that acute stress is dangerous in the retrieval process is useful during encoding (Quaedflieg & Schwabe, 2018). Such instances can make stress be either viewed as harmful or beneficial due to the contrasting impacts placed on memory. Nonetheless, the body has a wide range of mechanisms in responding and handling stressful events. It is possible to establish instances where stress is beneficial to human cognitive performance. For example, acute stress during indoctrination can help memory in becoming a witness to a particular crime. The neurobiological role tentatively shows having slight to modest amounts of stress, and especially mental strain, as crime frequently is, should increase witness’s memory. However, studies on the eyewitness field are yet to illustrate this idea.

The role an individual plays in a stressful circumstance can also influence how stressful the event is and might matter in the person’s memory. Studies show that reduced amounts of stress can assist the mind at encoding, as seen in acute stress that students experience when studying for exams (Quaedflieg & Schwabe, 2018). During this learning stage, encountering minor to reasonable anxiety permits people to contemplate on effective application of received information for the enhanced performance on subsequent tests.

The same examples can describe the destructive effects of anxiety on retrieval. For instance, after observing a crime, police often summon witnesses for interrogation based on their experiences (Marr et al., 2018). During such interviews, some eyewitnesses might become stressed, especially if they had earlier encountered negative police experience. However, if they develop stress, they probably might have an impaired memory (Shields et al., 2017). In schools, the same encounter happens where learners are consistently battle stressful periods when retrieving memories, such as during examinations or class presentations.

Therefore, intensified amounts of stress during evaluations can deleteriously impact a student’s memory, leading to poor grades and performance. In addition, stress can harm an individual’s capability to integrate new information into those already known. Instructors can also encounter undesirable effects of stress in learning spaces. For instance, such experiences might compel the teacher to change to a habitual teaching method that can hamper learners’ understanding capacity (Marr et al., 2018). The above examples illustrate how serious trauma just before reclamation can injure memory performance.

Traumatic events can result in the emergence of anxiety. Current treatment interventions are not as prosperous as wished. Hence, enhanced comprehension of the fundamental vulnerabilities and mechanisms is vital. Under stressful circumstances, a torrent of physiological combined with neuroendocrinological alterations start systematically (American Psychological Association, 2018). Shortly after a stressful situation, the adrenal medulla produces noradrenaline and adrenaline, although a milder flow of hormones is instigated by hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenocortical (HPA) alignment (Klinke et al., 2020). Studies have depicted that severe or chronic stress has functional and structural impacts on numerous brain sections in the fear circuitry, comprising the hippocampus and the amygdala (Ferry, 2017). The situation results in the presumption that stress might sensitize the mind to subsequent traumatic events. In this regard, stress impacts memory processes and aversive learning (Klinke et al., 2020). Moreover, distal stress might strengthen acquired anxiety, leading to impaired fear extinction. The findings have clinical connotations by depicting that earlier stress exposure sensitizes later aversive handling and impairs treatment.


In conclusion, the association between stress and memory performance is more multifaceted than frequently presumed. With the help of biological stress cascade, learning theories, and extinction after the tension, the paper illustrates the effects of stress on human memory. It has been established that stress has both positive and harmful consequences to cognitive outcomes. Stressful circumstances can help memory as mild to reasonable amounts during encoding facilitates the formation of memory. In contrast, acute stress is injurious to the memory and other cognitive-linked performance during retrieval and encoding level. Overall, excessive stressors result in the discharge of chemicals that influence long-term and instant memory.


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