Chronic Stress and Memory Loss

As part of my business, I recently completed 2 Lunch & Learn sessions at Guelph General Hospital on stress management techniques.  I talked about how our innate and necessary acute stress response can become extremely detrimental if never given the opportunity to switch off and our bodies and brain given time to recover. More specifically, I talked about what happens to our brain when acute stress becomes chronic.

We all experience stress. Basically everything we do to our bodies is considered  a stress. When we type on a keyboard, talk to a friend, or get up in the morning, we are causing a stress on our cellular machinery. This type of stress however is necessary and unavoidable.

We will also face acute psychological and physiological stress that will help us to deal with and/or solve a particular situation. You’ve all heard of the fight or flight response, well this is what the acute stress pathway is preparing us for. Also, during exposure to an acute stress we actually lay down new memories that will help us to deal with this particular scenario in the future.

But when we suffer from unrelenting stress either from work, our family, or our health-state, we begin to do considerable damage to our mind and body.

With the constant stimulation of the stress pathway, it gets stronger. As the expression goes, “what fires together wires together”. And thus, the synaptic connections in our brain associated with the stress that we are either experiencing or reliving become stronger. And while our stress pathway is becoming stronger, something terrible is happening to the hippocampus (our memory bank).

Memories not associated with the chronic stress you are experiencing, that are going untouched/unused, begin to die. The actual physiological structure of the hippocampus begins to shrivel as the dendrites (hair-like structures that extend from the neuron) begin to retract. We begin to have neuronal death.

Scary? Most definitely. By allowing ourselves to be stressed, we are actually changing the structure and function of our brain. We become less able to access coping strategies, problem-solving skills, or memories that would refute the response that we are currently experiencing.

Our inability to manage stress can and likely will eventually result in some form of memory loss.

We can, however, do something to change this. I will discuss stress management techniques over the course of the next few weeks. I hope to have a few guest posters, but I cannot promise anything at the moment.



Ratey, J. 2008. Spark. Little, Brown and Company: New York.


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