The impact of Emotions on Memory

Memory problems can be very distressing and interfere with our ability to achieve our goals in life. Often when people are experiencing memory problems, they worry that something might be wrong with their brain.  Neurological factors (such as traumatic brain injury or dementia) can be the cause of memory problems. However, emotional problems such as depression, anxiety, stress, and anger, can also cause memory problems. It is important to determine what factors are causing your memory problems, as successful treatment follows from accurate diagnosis.

Depression: When we feel depressed our brains and bodies tend to slow down and we become more muddled. We tend to find it more difficult to concentrate on things and make decisions. These concentration difficulties can mean that information is not going through to our memory systems, and so we might find we are more forgetful. People also find it difficult thinking clearly about a problem when depressed, and weighing up all the possible solutions to a problem. Treatment: For managing depression-induced memory problems, seek psychological treatment for depression. Other strategies that might help include breaking down tasks into smaller more manageable steps, and addressing one step at a time. Reduce distractions when you are trying to think about a problem. Ask others to repeat themselves, and write things down so you don’t forget. Try to seek support from others to manage some jobs that you find difficult, and delay making big decisions until you mood has improved.

Stress and Anxiety: Stress and anxiety can also lead to concentration and memory problems – With Anxiety we tend to direct our attention to the thing that is making us anxious and this results in reduced processing of other information. Stress is the result of having overwhelming external demands and not enough time or resources to deal with those demands. This results in poorer processing of information due to system overload. Treatment: for anxiety conditions you might seek psychological treatment so that you are able to reduce the importance of the event that is causing you to feel anxious. Other strategies that might help include learning relaxation techniques so that you can calm yourself when feeling anxious, challenging your self-talk about the anxiety provoking situation, and exposing yourself to the things that make you fearful. Also, grounding techniques or mindfulness techniques can be of assistance (becoming more in-tuned with other sensory input and the full world around us). With stress it is important to reduce the demands on your time but dropping activities that are not as important, or reducing your expectations of how well you want to do something.

Anger: People who experience intense anger and rage often report having blanks in their memory. Anger can result in a general increase in physiological reactivity and a focus on the situation causing the anger which can blind the person to what is happening around them. Treatment: Again, seek professional assistance to manage your anger. Notice your triggers for anger and intervene early by leaving the situation, engaging in slowed breathing, or counting to 10. Think about the consequences of angry behaviour and recognise that your internal self-talk is likely to be contributing to your anger.

Dr Sascha Hardwick is a Clinical Psychologist and Neuropsychologist in Ashgrove, Brisbane who can conduct assessments to determine what types of factors might be leading to your memory problems. She provides treatment for such problems, whether they are caused by neurological or psychological factors.