Why Do We Remember Stressful Events?

Humans are learning machines. When you learn, you organize, shape, and strengthen your brain. A hundred billion or more nerve cells are crammed into three pounds of complex tissue inside your skull. From the day you are born and even before, your brain is ready to capture your experiences and encode them into a web of connections. These connections are the nuts and bolts of the learning machine that is the human brain.

The brain makes, organizes, and controls memory. What you learn is stored as memories and this information is essential to survival. Your brain automatically adjusts to reflect life experiences. During stress, these connections activate to signal that something is important. This tells other nerve cells that what is happening should be remembered because it is significant. This automatic adjustment (that scientists called “plasticity”) enables you to remember what you have experienced to learn from it and thus changes how your brain operates.

The brain, like memory operates on hormonal chemicals. These chemicals produce emotional responses in the brain and body. Just like a certain combination of flour, sugar, butter, and other ingredients can combine and produce a cake, these chemicals combine in your brain to produce certain physical reactions and emotional responses. Just like an automobile contains various fluids (brake, window washer, transmission, oil, anti-freeze, etc.), the brain operates on chemicals known as “neurotransmitters”. The levels of these hormonal chemicals or neurotransmitters in the brain create your mood. Emotional memories contain instructions for the brain to use these neurotransmitter ingredients to produce the mood. Like the oil in your automobile, neurotransmitters have a normal level in the brain and can be “low” or “high” depending upon certain situations.

It turns out your memory is sort of like Jell-O, it takes time to solidify a memory in your brain. And while its setting, you can make that memory stronger or weaker. It all depends on the stress hormone norepinephrine. Norepinephrine actually makes your brain remember better. Now you needn’t have been traumatized to understand the powerful effect that emotions can have on the formation of memory. In fact, it has been known for a while that norepinephrine, the hormone released during stress and anxiety, enhances memory. This explains why emotional arousal has such a powerful influence on how well you remember things. An event becomes a strong memory, or a traumatic memory, when emotions are high.

Suppose your boss said to you, ‘I think you’re one of worst people I’ve ever seen … but I’m just joking, so don’t take it personally’. Even with your boss telling you that it’s not sincere, there’s nothing to keep you from blushing or from feeling tense all over. And I dare say that you’re going to remember your boss having said that long after you’ve forgotten the other details of the rest of your discussion. I guarantee it. That’s why you remember important and emotional events in your life more than regular day-to-day experiences. First, you have a horribly or unexpected event, and then you have intense fear and helplessness. That intense fear and helplessness is going to stimulate norepinephrine, the brain chemical associated with the fight or flight reaction. You are hard wired to secrete norepinephrine when you face stress, which makes your memories of that stressful event stronger. The detection of stress hormones triggered by an insult or a traffic accident, tells the brain that this is a memory of great importance.

Joking boss photo available from Shutterstock

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Shared by: Aaron Karmin, LCPC, Contributing Blogger

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