Stress Can Strengthen Emotional Memories


Stress can strengthen emotional memories.

There was an interesting study recently published in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Researchers at the University of Montreal’s Center for Studies on Human Stress tested to see the effects of cortisol (“the stress hormone,” commonly associated with our body’s fight-or-flight response) on participant’s memories of an emotional event.

The experimenters had participants watch a video presentation of a small girl visiting her grandparents. While the girl and her grandfather were trying to build a bird house, the girl accidentally caught her hand in a saw. To increase the effect of the story, the participants were shown a picture of the girl’s hand after the incident. Objective measures of cortisol in participants’ saliva (before and after viewing the video) indicated that participants had a strong reaction to the presentation.

Three days later, the participants were brought back. One group took a placebo, while two other groups took different doses of a drug that cuts back cortisol from being released into the bloodstream. The researchers discovered that those who took the cortisol-diminishing drug were less able to recall details of the memory involving the small girl. Meanwhile, those who had average cortisol levels were more likely to remember the memory, especially the more gruesome details.

Lead researcher Marie-France Marin theorizes that this study depicts how cortisol affects the recollection of memories. Marin believes that cortisol-diminishing drugs may be beneficial in the treatment of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), by minimizing the intensity of memories that triggered the condition.

Further implications suggest that our ability to relax (sometimes called “rest and digest,” the opposite of “fight or flight”) is important in our capacity to move on from emotional events and continue our lives “as normal.” In contrast, a stressful life can add to our emotional distress and increase our tendency to recall negative events in our lives. Perhaps the more stressed out we are, the more we tend to reflect on these negative ruminations. This can become a vicious cycle.

The answer seems to be pretty simple: engaging in activities that promote relaxation can be a helpful aid in overcoming memories of negative events in our lives. Exercise and meditation are two of the best known methods to help minimize stress and cortisol in the long-term. I imagine also engaging in more leisure activities, and perhaps looking at our lives from a less “busy” and more “playful” mindset, can also make drastic changes in helping us live more relaxed lives.

This isn’t to say that all stress is bad. Stress can obviously serve a useful function in motivating us to change behavior when we need to. But I also find that a lot of today’s stresses are unnecessary and unhealthy, and therefore worth eliminating. As most of us know, society is more busy-minded than ever before. There are so many distractions we experience on a daily basis, and many fairly insignificant things to worry about. In my honest opinion, most people are way more stressed out then they need to be (and often times this increases the emotional baggage they carry with them). Having a clear idea on what brings us relaxation is key to a healthy mind.

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