Here's Why You Can't Seem to Remember Anything

Daniel Fishel/Thrillist
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Picture this: You're at a party, launching into a colorful anecdote complete with pantomimes, when your audience stifles a yawn and breaks eye contact. What happened? Everything was going so well. "Dude, you've told that story a million times," whispers a friend as they slink off to the keg.

If you've never experienced this or or a similar situation, then you have a really good memory (or really sycophantic friends). You could blame drinking and pot use or too much or too little sleep, to name a few. But there's something more insidious at work here, a factor that feeds into all the usual culprits: stress.

"Stress absolutely affects memory," says clinical psychologist and behaviorist Dr. Jennifer Guttman. Read on for more about why that is… but maybe stop and do some deep breathing for relaxation first, because what's the point if you're just going to forget this anyway?

The high cost of high cortisol

Cortisol is pretty important when it comes to keeping you alive. Your adrenal glands secrete cortisol when your blood sugar is low and when you're stressed. That's all fine and dandy if stress comes in short bursts, but when it's an ongoing state, those high levels of cortisol can be corrosive (metaphorically) to the brain.

"When someone is stressed, cortisol is released to help them get through that event as a chemical boost for survival," says psychologist Dr. Paul DePompo. "The problem is when you stay at high levels of stress, you get an over influx of cortisol. Research has shown this leads to short-term memory loss."

High cortisol levels can lead to "weathering of the brain," and not the handsome, rugged weathering associated with male Hollywood actors of a certain age. They actually makes synapses -- the places where neurons connect and transmit chemical bits of information known as neurotransmitters -- shrink and disappear. DISAPPEAR. So basically, chronically high cortisol levels are the mnemonic equivalent of The Nothing from The NeverEnding Story.

To be alive is to be stressed

According to the American Psychological Association's 2015 stress report, millennials (adults ages 18-36) reported the highest levels of stress compared to other generations, averaging a six on a 10-point scale. Money and work are the biggest stressors, and women, minorities, disabled, and LGBT people are the most stressed groups (shocking). "Our society is at such a constant state of stress, I worry what the long-term consequences are regarding our memory into our older years," Dr. LePompo says.

Not only are millennials the most stressed generation, they're also the worst at dealing with it: Most cope with stress by going online, eating, and playing video games, according to the APA. And since overeating and overdependence on technology both mess with your memory, maybe poor coping techniques are indirectly affecting your memory, on top of the high cortisol levels that are affecting it directly.

"When a person is stressed, two things happen," Dr. Guttman says. "First, they're often affected by lack of sleep and/or poor nutrition, both of which are necessary for the brain to work optimally. And second, the brain is preoccupied by whatever is causing the stress taking up precious mental energy that would normally be used toward needed memory storage."

So how should you deal with stress?

The best way to deal with stress-related memory loss  is to STEP AWAY FROM THE SCREENS. (Yes, I know you're looking at a screen right now.) The APA recommends meditation, talking to a loved one, physical activity, getting enough sleep, eating right, identifying what's stressing you out -- all stuff you probably know already.

Another thing you probably already know? That you're bad at dealing with stress. One in four millennials admits that they're not doing enough to manage it, according to the APA's survey. Only one in every 10 boomers says the same thing. So let's handle that stress, people. Boomers have already taken so much. Don't let them take the stress-handling prize*, too.

*Unless competition stresses you out. In which case, forget** about it.

**You probably will anyway.

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Missy Wilkinson once forgot how to open the gas tank of a car she's owned for seven years. Follow her on Twitter @missy_wilkinson.