The memory depression connection
I don’t have a memory problem I just have… a memory problem
When I was experiencing some of my worst depression and anxiety, I started to notice some memory symptoms that really worried me. I started to notice that I was forgetting things… a lot. I felt frazzled a lot of the time. My brain felt like it had slowed down somehow and it was difficult to recall things.
Especially during moments of pressure or anxiety, I had a lot of trouble recalling details.
I don’t mean that I was absent minded and I just forgot to switch my laundry to the dryer. Sadly, I mean that I had trouble remembering the way to get home from the grocery store. Everyone has busy days where they forget an appointment or get scatterbrained. This felt like something entirely different to me. Sometimes I could picture an item in my mind, but I could not recall the name. Neither in German nor in English.
I would wait a few hours and try again. Usually I could recall simple things like an apple or a piece of cheese. I also forgot the layout of my familiar surroundings. At times, I was unable to recall what the end of our street looked like. Or how the inside of our local grocery was laid out. I lost my car in the parking lot so often that my parents helped me get a remote with a panic button on it. I would press it and my car would honk until I found it.
“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.”
- Haruki Murakami
Forgetting was really scary
In my teenage years that was a scary experience. Especially because I had been a straight A student. There had definitely not been anything wrong with my memory before. I found myself scared to bring it up to my doctor because I was afraid of what it might mean. Was I seeing the symptoms of something major like early onset Alzheimer’s disease?
Depression and your memory
Memory loss is not something you see on the list of depression symptoms often. It is a less-talked about symptom for people who are experiencing depression. Even though more and more studies are showing that cognitive impairment in various presentations is actually quite common with depression.
Cognitive function symptoms vary greatly among people with depression. This seems to be why it has been quite difficult for the scientific community to put their finger on how exactly these two conditions are linked. So far they have established that depression can definitely affect your memory. Most commonly your short-term temporal memory.
They have also found that people suffering from both depression and anxiety are more likely to experience cognitive impairment. And they are more likely to have more severe symptoms. There is a large spectrum of what this impairment looks like in different individuals. Symptoms can vary from being forgetful, absent minded, frazzled, and unable to make decisions, to having actual large gaps of memory that can span from days to years.
Pattern separation and memory
Scientists have even figured out how they think depression causes memory problems. Our brain uses a process called ‘pattern separation’ to keep similar experiences separate. Let’s say you go to the grocery store on Monday and see a cashier with short dark hair. You return to the grocery store again on Friday and see a different cashier with short dark hair. Your brain can differentiate between the two cashiers and you remember them as two different people.
Depression somehow interferes or damages ‘pattern separation’. This means that you have trouble distinguishing experiences and remembering them. Things may blur into each other and you cannot say exactly which memory belongs to which experience. At some point, it will be difficult to recall the memory because it is indistinguishable from another memory.
Depression also slows various other processes in the brain. Usually your brain is quick and efficient at processing and retrieving information; however, depression affects these processes, which makes it harder to efficiently process and retrieve memories. Both ‘pattern separation’ damage and troubles with brain processes seem to work together to cause memory problems during depression.
How depression affects your brain
It seems that a major hurdle for understanding depression and memory for the scientific community has been that symptoms were so varied that they were not initially seen as being related. Some larger studies are now working to bring together more of this data that we previously didn’t think had a common cause.
This type of research has definitely been very helpful in understanding the wide variety of symptoms people with depression suffer from. But it has not yet helped us understand exactly how cognitive impairment is caused. While there is still much more research needed to fully understand the relationship, we do already know that several things related to depression will negatively affect your brain. And can contribute to memory and cognition problems.
It has been well documented that certain kinds of trauma can cause memory gaps. In a way, this is your body’s way of shutting down an extremely harmful memory in an attempt to save you from the overwhelming pain and grief it could cause. Having a memory gap or a general “haze” around a traumatic event is common. In fact, many people experience this kind of memory fog when they think back on recovering after certain trauma or getting through the immediate aftermath of a big loss or a traumatic life event.
It took me years to realize that I had a memory gap during the summer where we moved to Canada. I do not have any actual memories of my first days in the new school. Years later, friends would laugh with me about how I behaved during those first days. I realized that I had absolutely no recollection of any of the events. Over the years, I have gathered together memories from friends. But I don’t seem to have any clear memories of my own surroundings at that time.
Another common problem of depression that can make your memory worse is what it does to your sleep. It is well known that new parents with a screaming baby are often barely functioning mentally after the first few weeks of sleep deprived nights. Many people suffering from depression and/or anxiety actually have similar experiences with their sleep patterns with or without a baby present.
Insomnia can make a mess of your mental ability. And over time it can even cause memory problems. Similarly, sleeping too much will also have adverse effects on your brain and cognitive function. This means that one of the most common symptoms of depression could be a large contributor to the changes in brain function.
Western medicine has quite a narrow view of depression. Many people who see their doctors for depression or anxiety symptoms are immediately prescribed antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication, or both. While in some cases these can be life-saving medications, in others, they can cause even more suffering from side effects and interactions.
When I was first seeing my doctor for my depression, I was also talked into trying antidepressants. I spent the next months sliding from one drug haze into the next, struggling with severe side effects. Most days, I felt like the shell of a Zombie. I was completely empty and numb. In addition, towards the end, I even questioned my own sanity.
The truth is that depression and anxiety are a very unique set of symptoms in each person. And there are a huge variety of medications that all work differently on the brain. Finding a right fit can be a hard journey. Or for some people it might not be the right answer at all.
What else can affect your memory
While depression and anxiety can affect your brain in many ways, there are still other conditions that could also be causing memory and cognitive problems. If you are having symptoms, your doctor should help you rule out other problems. You should look at things like a Vitamin B12 deficiency, kidney or liver disorders, and thyroid problems.
If you are going to talk to your doctor, expect to be asked about some of the following things:
How to cope
Unfortunately, while you are dealing with anxiety and/or depression, memory and cognitive problems may be a daily reality for you. Over time, I had to start finding coping mechanisms that helped me at least function enough to meet my daily responsibilities. I used alarms and reminders on my phone and computer to remind myself of anything from moving the laundry to the dryer, to having a counselling appointment.
Some weeks, my house became a shrine of sticky notes that reminded me of classes, hair appointments, shopping lists, and even places to keep the remote for the TV. I simply needed to be able to “outsource” my memory in order to function. I also had friends and family that supported me.
Some of them knew to call me before important birthdays or appointments to make sure I remembered. I was lucky to have understanding and supportive people around me who helped me manage, even when I was scared myself with how much I could forget. Above all, the important thing is not to panic. Because fear, panic, and anxiety definitely make the problem worse.
Look at it as a temporary disability that you are working through, and continue to seek treatment from your doctor and therapist.
Lean on your support network to help you cope. And use alarms, reminders, timers, and sticky notes to fulfill your daily responsibilities. Especially at work, memory issues can be detrimental and you will need to find ways to balance your brain’s temporary issues.
The good news about all this is that memory loss from depression is usually temporary. Even though we talk about pattern separation damage, a lot of the processes can be rebuilt as depression is treated. Your brain is an amazing, complex organ and has the capability to heal trauma and damage. This will take time and you actively have to work at it.
Personally, my short-term memory problems resolved as I broke through depression. With therapy, self-care, and alternative therapies, I was able to make great progress. Today, my work and every day routine is no longer affected by memory problems. There are the odd days, if something bad has happened, that I notice my brain seems to work a little slower. But this generally resolves the next day.
My long-term memory was a bit of a different story. I had large memory gaps at various times during my life. Pretty much the entire year after we moved to Canada was wiped. Several months around various traumas also disappeared completely. No matter how much I tried, I could not remember anything. This is where I worked with a hypnotherapist to slowly unlock those memories.
Keep in mind that your brain is trying to protect you by keeping those memories from you.
If you decide to work with a hypnotherapist, make sure you also work with a therapist and/or doctor at the same time. And have your support network ready. Releasing those memories can be traumatizing all over again and you will need support to work through them.
Expect a positive outcome
Although memory loss and memory problems can be scary, it is important to expect a positive outcome. Pressuring yourself into having to remember something will only make the situation worse. Adding more anxiety and depression will interfere with your brain’s efficiency even more. Once you have noticed that your memory is affected, your first reaction might be to panic. And it is important to actively work against that.
Most memory problems resolve after depression is treated. So, focus on healing your depression and anxiety, instead of forcing your memories to surface. Give yourself time to heal and understand that memory problems can be a normal occurrence when you are depressed. Find ways to cope while you are treating your depression, instead of beating yourself up for forgetting something.
Your brain is so amazing and it is more than likely that your memory problems will resolve. Expect everything to be alright and work toward that outcome. Try to treat your memory problems and your depression as a connected entity. In fact, you will likely find that as your depression gets better, your memory will improve as well.
You are not broken. You just need some time to put the pieces back in the right order!