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Universiteit Leiden

Why stress is not so easily forgotten

Why stress is not so easily forgotten

Whether an embarrassing blunder, the death of a friend or a missed train to a very important appointment: we seem remember stressful situations better than normal day-to-day events. But why is this the case? Why does our stress keep haunting us?

Imagine taking the train to a job interview. When you arrive at the station, you find out that your train is delayed and you will never make it in time. You grab your phone to call someone, but as you click the button, the screen remains black: your battery is dead.

Years later, you will probably still remember the panic at the train station. You may have long forgotten what company the job interview was actually for, but the feeling of stress is forever written in your memory.

Our ability to remember stressful situations is surprisingly good. I, for example, remember every detail of the moment I heard that my father had passed away. Although it has been ten years since, I can still hear every word I heard, recall every thought I had, and feel the goose bumps on my skin. Similarly, you probably know exactly what you were doing when you first heard of the 9/11 attack.

Benefits of better memory

Our brains are wired to remember stressful life events more clearly than normal, everyday events. This enhanced memory can have negative consequences. For example: it contributes to post traumatic stress disorder, in which extremely stressful situation keep being remembered.

This might lead you to wonder about the benefits of this enhanced stress-memory. Is there a positive side to this? Wouldn’t it be way more zen to just remember the times that everything went well and you were happy?

Well, it probably would. But stressful events can be very informative. When you think back of that time when you didn’t make it to your job interview, you might decide to take the car for your next interview. Remembering stress might thus be very useful, because it allows us to learn from our previous experiences. It can prepare us to survive similar situations in the future.

Activity in the brain

But how does this mechanism work? In other words: what happens in the brain? When we feel fear, stress, or other strong emotions, our body releases chemicals (noradrenaline, for example) that make us alert and focus our attention on what matters most. Strong emotions also activate the amygdala: a small almond-like brain structure that is very important for our emotions.

The chemicals that are released under stress can make the amygdala work harder and increase its influence. The combination of the release of chemicals and the activity of the amygdala (and that of other memory-related brain regions) leads to better memory. Thus, our body’s response to stress simply enhances our capacity to pay attention and memorize the most important aspects of the situation. Of course, these processes are quite complex and all kinds of other factors influence the effect of stress on memory. And there’s a lot that we don’t know for sure. New theories about memory for stress are still being proposed!

Nobody likes to feel stressed, but at least you know now that there is a positive side to it. So next time you curse the train for not arriving in time, try thinking about it in another way. You might have granted future you a valuable lesson: when you want to arrive in time, just take an earlier train!

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