Memory loss is a symptom of anxiety and depression that we don’t always hear about. Despite this, it can cause significant distress and have a huge impact on our lives. Understanding the link between our mental health and our memory can help us to create strategies that work for us, and to be more compassionate towards ourselves (because this memory loss is not our fault).
Working memory is another word for ‘short-term memory’. It applies to things like remembering what we need to buy from the supermarket.
Depression can cause problems with our working memory. If we’re struggling to shift our attention away from negative thoughts, they take up a lot of brain space. This limits our working memory capacity.
Anxiety causes problems with our working memory, too. In a similar way to depression, the more we’re consumed by anxiety, the fewer resources we have for remembering things, and the worse our working memory becomes.
Physical Brain Changes And Memory Loss
Though memory loss may not be thought of as a ‘physical’ thing, because it’s not something we can touch, it can be associated with physical changes to our brain.
Our hippocampus is a part of our brain that’s linked with memory. When we have depression, our hippocampus can shrink. This can reduce our ability to remember things.
When our anxiety is triggered, one of our hormones, glucocorticoids, is released into our brain. If our levels of glucocorticoids are consistently high, as they’re likely to be when we have persistently high levels of anxiety, then our memory can be impaired.
An Exhausted Brain
Anxiety, and stress, can exhaust our brain.
Cortisol and adrenaline are two of our hormones. Whenever our anxiety is triggered, levels of both of them are increased. This is exhausting for our brain and can cause memory blanks. The more often our anxiety is triggered, the more we have high levels of these hormones and the greater the probability of our memory being affected.
Memory Loss And Medication
Medication can affect our memory. If we recognise that our memory deteriorated when we started a new medication or changed the dose of an existing one, then it’s advisable to chat with our doctor. We should never stop a medication or change our dose without medical advice because it can be really dangerous (and make us feel dreadful!).
Focus, Concentration, And Attention
Both depression and anxiety can affect our processing speed, focus, concentration, and how well we’re able to pay attention.
All of these things can lead to memory loss, particularly in the short term. If we can’t concentrate on, or pay attention to the things going on around us, then we struggle to remember them properly. Even if we do manage to focus, poor processing speed can add another layer of difficulty in learning and retaining information
Each of these symptoms can be worsened through lack of sleep – something that’s really common when we have anxiety and depression.
Sleep And Memory
The making of memories can be split into three sections: acquisition, consolidation, and recall.
Acquiring and recalling memories both happen when we’re awake. But the consolidation (making them stick) part of memory-making happens when we’re asleep.
Low quality sleep can affect this consolidation, which can exacerbate memory loss. Anxiety and depression can both impact how well we sleep. The worse our sleep, the more we’re likely to struggle with our memory.
When we experience trauma, blocking out our memories can be a conscious or sub-conscious coping mechanism. If we can’t remember things, then we don’t have to feel the difficult feelings associated with them.
This can extend to our everyday lives. Rather than just blocking out a specific event, we might find that start struggling to remember sections of time each day.
How Memory Loss Affects Our Life
Poor memory can affect our lives in all sorts of ways.
Staying on top of household jobs can be difficult. We might start cooking, get distracted, forget that we’ve left something on the hob and end up with a blackened pan to clean. We could start cleaning and forget where we put the cloth we were using. Our plants might go unwatered, keys get lost multiple times a week, and bins start to overflow as we keep forgetting to put them out for collection.
Beyond housework, we might start to forget things like taking our medication, going to appointments, doing vital a report for our boss, or paying bills on time.
Reading can be difficult because if we can’t remember what we’ve just read then we have to re-read the same page again… and again. This can make books inaccessible to us.
Staying in contact with people can be hard because we forget to reply to messages, forget to ring people back, and forget things that people say to us.
How Memory Loss Feels
Having poor memory can feel foggy and disorientating. Our head can feel heavy, and cloudy. Nothing will go in, no matter how hard we try.
Constantly forgetting things and struggling to do things we’ve been able to do for years (like reading) can be frustrating and leave us feeling useless. Our already-low self-confidence takes hit after hit. Often, we’re very self-critical, and unfortunately, this self-criticism can make our memory even worse.
We might feel totally out of control. As though everything we’re trying to do is slipping past us and we can’t grab hold of any of it.
Struggling to remember things can be really scary. It’s not nice to have memory blanks, especially if we’re worried about what might or might not have happened in that space. It can leave us feeling lost, anxious, and wary.
Things We Could Try
Prompts could include post-it notes, diaries, lists, posters, timers, alarms, or signs (eg. one on the back of our front door saying ‘have you got your keys?’) can jog our memory when needed. They can feel like a safety net. If we’re close to friends and family, we could ask them to prompt us on certain things.
Systems and routines can help us to remember things that we do on a regular basis. Once we learn to recognise a familiar pattern, we often notice if something is ‘off’. A morning routine is a great example of this – getting up, taking our medication, eating breakfast, and getting dressed in the same order every day can help us to remember each step.
We might choose to use aids. Dossette boxes are an aid that many of us find useful. If we have our medication counted out for each day then not only are we less likely to forget one of our tablets, but we can also see whether we’ve taken it or not, reducing the risk of double-dosing.
It can help to create a ‘home’ for the things we can never find. For example, having a spot where for our keys to ‘live’, can help us to lose them less often. A box containing all of our chargers can help us to find the one we need when we need it. Returning our TV remote to the same spot each nice should help us know where to find it the next day.
When talking to others, moving conversations to a quiet place can help us to focus, which should improve how well we remember what’s been discussed. Similarly, if we’re on the phone to someone, then removing any distractions around us can help us to focus on what’s being said. If we’re in a meeting or lecture then taking notes or asking whether we can record the session can help us to recall the important points afterwards.
Visiting our GP to make sure that there’s nothing else that’s causing us to experience memory loss can be a good start. Loads of different things can affect our memory such as dementia, physical health problems, and age.
Getting support with our anxiety and depression can help us to get our symptoms under control, improving our memory. This could be through medication, therapy, or other interventions that work for us.
If we’ve been through a trauma, we might find trauma-informed care helpful. Working through specific traumas, reducing the impact of them on our lives, can ultimately improve our memory.
This Might Fluctuate
Many of us will find that over time, our memory loss fluctuates. We might find that it mirrors our mood or anxiety levels.
If we’re able to find some aids or prompts that work for us, then memory loss can have a far less significant impact on our life. Once routines and prompts become familiar to us, we might stop noticing that we’re doing them, because to us they become ‘just part of life’.
We might have to try a few things out to discover what works for us, but. with the right support, memory loss is manageable.
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