Cheryl Greenberg - HeadshotCheryl Greenberg, Ed.D.

Dr. Cheryl Greenberg, Ed.D., works as a coach, or guide, for seniors and their families as they consider and plan for changes in their personal and work lives. Contact her at or 336-202-5669.

We all know this memory circle: We are in a hurry to leave for an appointment but can’t find our car keys. We jump into stress mode. We look everywhere, try to remember where we put the keys, look again. Later, when we are calm, there they are, right where we put them earlier that day.

Why didn’t we find the keys while we were anxiously looking?

Well, the answer is fairly simple: There is a relationship between memory and stress.

  • We need a little stress to make a memory . . . to put information into our memories. We have to want to remember our friend’s birthday or we have to need to remember to pay a bill, and both wanting and needing mean we are a little stressed.
  • We make even stronger memories when we experience significant stress. We remember the time we lost our wallets with all our identification and credit cards or the day that our phones stopped working while we were traveling.
  • On the other hand, when we are chronically stressed or feel extreme stress in the moment (like needing car keys, right now, to get to an appointment), we do not remember well. With extreme and chronic stress, we are often confused and lack focus, and our memories seem to fail us.

What is happening?

Essentially, a little stress motivates us to remember. It helps us pay attention and put effort into remembering. When we experience extreme or chronic stress, we produce hormones that affect the structure of the brain itself and interfere with remembering. Too much of these hormones can damage the connections between brain cells that allow us to build and recall our memories.

What do we do about this?

  • Identify stressors and try to minimize them. Use memory strategies and written notes to jog your memory so that you don’t push and panic to remember.
  • Avoid increasing your stress when you don’t remember: Relax, give yourself time to remember, think about something else for a while.
  • Most importantly, live a healthy lifestyle that promotes relaxation: Exercise, meditate, socialize, sleep enough and eat well.

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