We are living in a higher state of anxiety than we were biologically made for. Our brains were made for us to remember stressful situations that would help us to save ourselves. Like if someone died, maybe you’d remember what berry they ate right before it. Or if a bear attacked, you’d remember what area of the woods to avoid and to run away fast. But what about all of the stressful situations we subject ourselves to now? Look at American students—we’re trained to be involved in everything, get the best grades, have friends, and still exercise and sleep. That can lend to a lot of stress! But is that stress actually helping us to survive better? Is that anxiety making us better students?
I don’t think so. With all of the stress and expectations, we just get higher strung and become really good students, but not necessarily very good learners. In the spirit of learning, let’s learn how stress affects memory!
- Stress activates a signaling pathway in the brain called ERK (extracellular signal-related kinases).
- ERK activates two transcription factors (substances that can start the copying of genes) called Elk-1 and MSK.
- Elk-1 and MSK are both used to activate a dual histone tag. The dual histone tag opens up DNA so that it can be ready to copy.
- Two immediate early genes (IEGs) and copied, which help to consolidate the stressful memory.
Since these stressful memories are consolidated, they are all associated with one another. That means if something reminds you of part of the memory, they are all called up, and your body prepares to react. This can mean that you become more anxious, and you can overreact to a situation that is not life threatening. Taking a test is not the same situation as being attacked by a bear, but your brain may not know the difference if you’re stressed.
Luckily there are some things we can do to help decrease this stressful memory creation. For example, exercising can help increase the activity of GABA in the brain. GABA is an inhibitory control, so it can help to stop the signaling pathway that makes stressful memories so powerful.