Is There a Link Between Mental Health and Memory?

In this post, we look at recent research on the link between mental health and memory, including depression and anxiety, plus how you can prevent it.

If you have ever noticed your memory worsens after periods of stress, you’re not alone.

As we are living through the challenges of an ongoing pandemic, more and more people are suffering from mental health concerns such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). According to Statistics Canada, ~1 in 4 Canadians aged 18+ screened positive for mental illness symptoms (which is 5% higher than the typical 1 in 5 seen in Canadians pre-pandemic).

When it comes to mental illness, there are a variety of symptoms, and no two people have the same experience. For example, someone may experience anxiety as an increased heart rate and difficulty breathing, while another could have nausea. This variety makes it harder to research, to learn more about mental health, and to potentially seek valuable and effective solutions.

Beyond removing the stigma of mental health illnesses, one silver lining of increased mental health awareness has been to invest more time and efforts in scientific research to find solutions.

Specifically, there has been new research looking at the link between anxiety and depression and associated symptoms such as memory loss, poor focus, and brain fatigue.

Let’s take a closer look at what the research is saying.

Depression and Memory/Cognitive Functioning

Depression symptoms typically include feelings of sadness, loss of interest, and hopelessness, and research has found that it affects our brain structure. A 2018 study found that participants diagnosed with depression showed smaller whole brain volumes and smaller hippocampal volumes (the hippocampus is a region of the brain that controls learning and memory). Not surprisingly, people with depression had a harder time forming new memories and accessing long-term memories. These differences were more often seen in patients with chronic depression  than those experiencing it for the first time.

Recent studies have shown a significant increase in depression and suicidal thoughts in youth who spend multiple hours a day using smart devices. Using electronic devices for up to 5+ hours a day has been seen to exacerbate average youth challenges and stressors.

As depression recognition and awareness increase, it is our hope that proper medical interventions are explored and utilized before depression causes functional changes to the brain.

Anxiety and Memory/Cognitive Functioning

Another prevalent mental health issue is anxiety. Thought it can present differently from person to person, anxiety is commonly explained as the limited control over worrying thoughts and an overall sensory sensitivity due to uncertainty or conflict.

How does anxiety affect our brain functioning? A 2016 meta-analysis found that short-term memory (also called working memory) is restricted in individuals with anxiety. This occurs due to a phenomenon named “Attentional Control Theory,” a term coined by Eysenck in 2007. This theory suggests that when our body experiences symptoms of anxiety, the sensitivity of external stimuli is far greater than your brain’s ability to overcome and function effectively.

Overall, when an individual is experiencing high levels of anxiety, it is commonly accompanied with reduced short-term memory function and attention control.

How to Prevent Mental Health Issues from Causing Memory Loss

Clearly, mental health is about much more than just feeling “sad” or “emotional.” It can cause actual physical changes to our brains, and it needs to be taken seriously and combatted the same way we deal with any other physical ailment.

Treatment plans for mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression include a wide variety of options and may not be the same for everyone. Check out our suggestions below and speak to your healthcare practitioner:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Can help you discuss feelings and challenges that make you feel unwell and can help you identify ways to deal with and effectively manage the symptoms of mental struggles. You can find these services locally or online.
  • Physical Education: Try adding daily movement to your routine, as this has been scientifically shown to help reduce symptoms of mental illness such as anxiety and depression.
  • Brain Food: Add quality foods to your diet that contribute to a healthy brain. There is a correlation between mental health and good nutrition.
  • Therapy: In addition to consulting your physician, speaking with a therapist is a wonderful first step to determining an effective plan to improve your mental health.
  • Natural Supplementation: Discover the many natural supplement options that can help you improve cognitive function including memory, focus, and clarity. Learn more about Memowell for memory health and Strowell for brain health/cognitive function.
  • Pharmaceutical Intervention: May be recommended by a medical professional. Talk to your doctor about the options available to you.

Conclusion

Research and societal awareness have come a long way regarding mental health and wellness. Don’t wait on getting the help you need so you can function at your best.