Remember the last time you forgot something important. Canʼt do it? Then this article is for you and your memory, which in wartime is failing more and more often (specific advice for Ukrainians)

Oksana Rasulova
Yuliana Skibitska
Remember the last time you forgot something important. Canʼt do it? Then this article is for you and your memory, which in wartime is failing more and more often (specific advice for Ukrainians)

Ангеліна Коткова / «Бабель»

The stress of war accumulates and affects all body systems, and memory is no exception. It can be scary when your memory keeps failing you, but the good news is that it can be trained and improved. How exactly? “Babel” journalist Oksana Rasulova and science popularizer Olga Maslova explain.

How memory works during stress

No matter how strange it sounds, memory is primarily a process of forgetting. We receive too much information, so the brain “cleans” the impressions from the day in order to “write down” just the main ones. This happens at the neurochemical level — some connections between neurons disappear, others strengthen. The latter remain in the memory. Different parts of the brain are involved in this process, so the whole system is very complex and fragile. And stress definitely affects her, but itʼs hard to say exactly how, because everyone reacts to it differently.

Is it possible to protect memory from stress?

Actually, people are a bit protected from it. Evolutionarily, life has prepared us only for short-term acute stress, when there is a threat from which we are escaping. And now we, Ukrainians, live in a state and expectation of danger. In addition to the immediate threat to ourselves and our loved ones, there is an existential threat to continuing being the country and the nation — this complicates everything.

What is happening to us is distress in a chronic form. Our resources are depleted, the body ages faster, and the mechanisms that should compensate for disorders simply donʼt have time to do so.

How memory is connected with sleep

The connection is very tight, because itʼs during sleep that the brain “cleanses” the memory — you remember what you need, and what hurts or doesnʼt bring benefits, you forget. And if you donʼt sleep well, all these processes are destroyed. It is not even the amount of sleep that is important, but its continuity — sleep phases should not be interrupted. Memory processes during sleep are similar to downloading files on a computer: if the cycle is interrupted, you have to start again. Therefore, memory is affected by night air raid alarms that interrupt sleep, and blackouts that force you to work at night when there is electricity.

Memory and healthy eating

They are also connected. Itʼs important to provide a sufficient amount of nutrients from which neural connections and interactions are built.

With alcohol, everything is standard — a few glasses of wine a week will not affect the memory. But if you drink every day, there will definitely be harm. Alcohol generally has a negative effect on the brain and disrupts its functions, and it also worsens the quality of sleep.

Memory and false memories (when you remember something that didnʼt happen)

False memories can indeed be caused by stress. Now we constantly observe online that we donʼt go through alone. For example, someone will definitely remember the day of a massive missile attack, although these memories will only be about the news and not about what actually happened to the person. The brain will invent things that we did not experience to explain to ourselves what is happening. It needs to have a clear picture.

Will memory problems stay forever?

Itʼs difficult to say here, because we do not know exactly which connections in the brain can be restored. Some will return, others wonʼt. However, there is one important marker that can reassure you. Make a note of when exactly the memory starts to fail. If you forget something on the day of shelling or when someone close to you is in danger, thatʼs normal. This is a normal response to acute stress, which will pass when you calm down, and does not signal global memory problems.

To what extent memory can deteriorate

It depends on many factors. Firstly, on the skills of a specific person — how he or she previously coped with stress, such as the memory of the war. And secondly, from the circumstances in which a person lives now, because everyone goes through different experiences. For some, itʼs more traumatic, for others less so. In addition, after the victory, the body will relax, because the immediate threat will pass, thatʼs when many problems with cognitive abilities can arise. Whole periods of life can be erased from memory, because they will be too traumatic. And someone, on the contrary, will remember a lot of details.

Who can treat memory and with what

First, a person with such concerns needs to go to a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist. Together, you can understand whether the memory has really deteriorated, and in which situations itʼs noticeable. A psychotherapist can advise cognitive techniques to improve memory. Or you will understand together that itʼs not a matter of memory deterioration, but, for example, of anxiety or poor concentration.

If this doesnʼt work, perhaps the connections between neurons have already begun to break down, and then a neurologist should be consulted. With it, you can go to the medicinal level. Perhaps itʼs necessary to improve blood microcirculation or add substances that improve the transmission of a specific neurotransmitter. However, there is no pill that will fix everything. And pills arenʼt the best way to solve a problem.

Memory exercises

There are general tips to try and see if it works. You definitely need to walk outside — it always benefits cognitive processes. Massage can also help if you have tight back and neck muscles. You can do yoga. You need to adjust your sleep as much as possible.

In general, itʼs necessary to use everything that is advised to children for the development of memory and cognitive abilities. It helps someone to write down all their affairs in lists, and someone, on the contrary, forgets after writing them down. For some, mobile games for memory training are suitable, for this you can also use Duolingo. You can do exercises on associations, remember words on cards. For example, looking at a picture with many details, and then writing down everything that you remembered. Among the things that can be done in the company are board games, in particular Alias or Dixit. You can learn lyrics and sing along, learn poems and then recite them. It is useful to weave from beads or mesh, to knit — all fine motor skills. All this is suitable both for the correction of memory problems and for their prevention.

The main advice is self-reflection. Pay attention to when and what you began to forget — what happened before the invasion or what happened more recently. This way you can understand what exactly will help improve your memory.

Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.

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