From Surviving 2 Thriving

Suzanne Butz - PACFA Registered Clinical Counsellor

Stress and Forgetfulness

There are so many symptoms of stress, as you have discovered in our online awareness of stress workshop. Let’s look at this one: Forgetfulness!

Have you noticed that the more stressed you are, the more forgetful you become? You can’t find your keys, and that makes you more stressed. You can’t remember simple things. You can’t find the right words. Maybe it’s a sign of other things, so always get it checked by your GP. But generally the answer is: it’s just stress. It may get as severe as not remembering simple words for names of objects, or even when you can’t access any words! It’s still just stress. And you get places only to find you have forgotten to bring that essential item. Or even, when you are driving, that your mind goes into ‘auto-pilot’ and you find yourself at work when you really wanted to go somewhere else. Or you forget to bring your lunch/your shopping list/your ‘thing’ you really wanted to have with you. These are all ‘forgetfulness’ symptoms of stress.

At present I have been very busy sharing this information with large numbers of organisations and have been travelling a lot more than I have been accustomed to in the last few years. Plus, several of these organisations are a considerable distance from home, so I drive up the day prior and stay overnight. Being aware of how stressful a simple drive of 3 hours can be, I have a sort of checklist in my head and also ensure that the regular items I need to pack are in a consistent place, in an attempt to minimise ‘missing items’ when I arrive at my destination. These tactics have been working well.

However, the last few weeks have been particularly stressful, with a large variety of clients in a large number of locations. Plus, like all of us, I have been dealing with a range of ‘home’ issues. There is nothing like house renovations to put an extra layer of stress on life. And daily life is often stressful in and of itself.

Yesterday my car was booked in for a service, requiring an early morning start. Plus I had managed to get a flat tyre on Friday night on my way home, so I now had the ‘space-saver spare tyre’ on the front driver’s side and that needed to be fixed and sorted. I had a new man starting to look after my garden, as it’s a steep block and I find I am unable to mow it, and the previous mowing man had moved away. I also had an 8.30am call booked with the engineer. So that hour from 7.30am-8.30am was very packed. My nervous system was highly charged. And, of course, I “didn’t have time” to utilise some of the basic stress-reduction techniques that I teach.

My plan had been to pack while waiting for the car service to finish, plus do all those household chores that make returning home after several days pleasant. I love walking into my home and feeling welcomed by a neat clean space.

As you know, stress shuts down blood-supply to the front brain. Particularly to the Hippocampus, the area responsible for laying-down and for retrieving memories. Because, if I am stressed, my hind-brain does not allow me to waste blood supply and energy on anything that is not going to get me out of immediate danger. And the hind brain knows my clever front brain is too slow to get me out of danger. With the result that I cannot create new solutions to problems, but if I have solutions prepared and rehearsed in my ‘emergency procedure space’, then I can access those solutions/words/actions. And that is why we do training for things that need to happen in an emergency so that our hind brain can access these approaches.

This works well for those ‘large emergencies’ we are happy to prepare for. But for daily life? When we have routines, these routines act as our emergency training procedures. It makes life easier and we don’t have to keep trying to remember what to do, what to use. But as soon as that routine is interrupted, things can go wrong. And it surprises us every time. We can get frustrated with ourselves and others because we forget things.

So, my approach will normally work – having a list in my head and keeping items in set places. I have ‘rehearsed’ my procedures. But as soon as I add some extra stress to the situation – that group of early morning appointments, some of which did not work out as planned – and then my hind brain starts shutting down my front brain.

As I packed yesterday to come away for three days of work that I love – sharing this information about the latest neuroscience understandings of stress and trauma – to as many people as will listen, I ran through what I needed to take. It went well. Until I found myself in the bathroom packing my toiletries bag. I pack it immediately after my morning shower so that I pack items like my toothbrush and medication that my routine has me associating with my shower. All good! But I stood there looking at my toiletries bag and my bathroom top drawer with a sense that I had missed something. I checked the drawer – nope, I had all the essentials. I ignored that odd ‘nagging feeling’ and finished packing, threw my luggage and the dogs and their luggage into the car and headed off.

Of course, that evening when I went to take my asthma preventative puffer prior to bedtime…. it wasn’t there!

image by Kamran Avdinov on FreePik
image by Kamran Avdinov on FreePik

I had been Amygdala Hijacked when I was packing. I describe in another article how we ‘lose our senses’ as we get triggered into an Amygdala response, and so it was for me when I was packing. Even though I was obviously looking directly at my asthma puffer, with its bright red lid, I was not seeing it. And it didn’t get packed. As I was packing my Hippocampus had obviously had blood supply reduced, and I totally forgot about my asthma puffer. My fabulous approach of a list in my mind and my routine were totally sabotaged and I lost all memory of the individual items that I really needed to take with me.

This happens to us all the time. The more stressed we are, the more forgetful we become. As that blood supply is reduced to the Hippocampus by as much as 100%, we lose more and more access to those things we need to remember.

When this happens, make sure part of your routine is to utilise your Belly Breathing, or your Emotional First Aid mindfulness techniques. The Belly Breathing is particularly useful at restoring blood supply. All thanks to the Vagus Nerve. We have looked at the Vagus Nerve’s contribution to the activation of stress resources during a stress event. It carries adrenaline and other cortisols from the adrenal glands, and then, when we belly breath, it transports serotonin (the feel-good-muscle-relaxant) from the gut.

And like me, when you are in stressful periods of your life, you may want to add a new routine: create a checklist. Lists are particularly helpful “secondary storage units”. Just like our computer, when we store excess information on an external device, the machine runs more smoothly. For our clever front brain, it loves a good list. It can be digital or paper (the act of writing things on paper always assists our cognitive memory), and we can check the items off or not (but be aware you may not “see” some of those items if you don’t!).

This also raises thoughts with me along the line of “Do these levels of regular stress contribute to the aging diseases such as dementia and alzheimers?” We know that stress causes inflammation and inflammation affects our cells and our DNA. It’s one of the reasons I originally created the Stress 2 Bliss program. I was aware that we all need to reduce the stress held in our body and increase the bliss hormones we can produce. Stress itself is not bad – it’s the fact that unresolved stress (when we don’t complete that body-based stress cycle that neuroscientists have shown is necessary) is held in our body over long periods of time, and constantly added to, that is the problem.

Dr Rudi Tanzi, author of several books on Alzheimers and also the brain “has been investigating the genetics of neurological disease since the 1980s when he participated in the first study that used genetic markers to find a disease gene (Huntington’s disease). Dr. Tanzi co-discovered all three familial early-onset Alzheimer’s disease (FAD) genes and several other neurological disease genes including that responsible for Wilson’s disease.” He says that stress definitely affects the production of the Amyloids associated with Alzheimers and recommends we start early to live more healthily, including “reducing the impacts of stress we experience’. And that’s what Stress 2 Bliss and From Surviving 2 Thriving are all about!

Yes, there will always be times when you become forgetful because of stress, but it doesn’t have to become a chronic condition. Build great healthy routines for your life that include Belly Breathing and completing your body-based stress cycle and you will find that you are less likely to forget important things. And when you forget because you haven’t looked after yourself, use it as a gentle reminder that you are stressed and you need to make time for your own needs as well.