“Dr. Karen, why is it that it’s hard to come up with even simple words sometimes? I have always noticed this but it seems to be happening more lately and it is frustrating and sometimes embarrassing.”
Joel P. —Business Manager
Hi Joel. Thanks for your question! I hear this complaint often. It is a part of normal aging that we begin to have more and more trouble finding words (normal aging changes begin at age 30, by the way).
I have found in my clinical work that people who are high achievers and who are naturally smart are the most sensitive to this phenomenon, because it is so different from how they are used to functioning, wherein everything comes easily to them.
Aside from aging, one of the main causes of word-finding trouble is stress. When we experience stress, our brain releases a chemical called cortisol. When we have excess cortisol in the brain, it is harder for the brain to send certain signals. Therefore, if we are stressed, then we may notice that when searching for a particular word, the signal may get blocked on occasion. The problem is that once that happens, we often start an internal dialogue.
See if this sounds familiar: “Why can’t I think of this word? This is so ridiculous! It’s a word I’ve used many times before! What is wrong with me?” Some people also take it a step further: “Does this mean I am developing dementia?”
All of this internal dialogue serves to create more stress, whether people are aware of feeling stressed or not. Then, the brain is triggered to release more cortisol, which blocks more signals, which makes it harder to think of words. And thus, the cycle continues.
The best way to break this cycle is to understand what is happening. Although word-finding trouble can be a symptom of a disease affecting thinking skills, in the absence of other symptoms, it is usually not a cause for major concern. If we know that word-finding trouble is non-threatening in most cases, then this can help us to relax, stop judging ourselves, and move on.
If, when we cannot come up with a word, our inner dialogue could change to “Oh shoot, what is that word? Oh well, I’ll use this other less perfect word in its place,” then we can stop the cycle of stress and increase the chances that the word will come back to us sooner.
You may have noticed that you remember a forgotten word later on in the day after you were searching for it, or maybe even in the middle of the night while you are sleeping. This is because your brain was still working on searching for the word, but once you allowed it to relax and cortisol levels returned to normal, the search was able to be completed and the word is able to come to mind.
So the lesson here is to forgive and forget. Forgive yourself for imperfection (even if it is frustrating or embarrassing) and forget about what it is you’re trying to remember; this will likely resolve the problem, but if it doesn’t, just remember that in most cases, you don’t need to worry; it’s normal!