There are those days when you can’t seem to remember even the simplest things, like where you put your keys, or that you had a doctor’s appointment. Forgetfulness happens to us all, as suggested by the “holiday” on July 2nd dedicated to the problem, “I Forgot Day.”
But when you forget things on a daily basis, it might be a sign of a more serious mental or physical health problem. Experts have information on what could be causing your forgetfulness, and how to improve your memory.
Tammy Whitten, a licensed marriage and family therapist, said in an email that stress and anxiety can be main causes for forgetfulness.
“Women tend to multitask and can organize and juggle so many things in their lives simultaneously, which can lead to forgetfulness and an occasional oversight,” Whitten said. “Lack of self-care is also a contributing factor to forgetfulness.”
“Our brains are the most powerful computer on the planet, and just like a power socket can overload, our brains can, too,” she added. “When someone tries to do too much or has a crisis situation, it's easy to forget things.”
She said stressful events like moving, divorce, sick family members, chaotic afternoons and financial stress can all lead to forgetfulness.
“Whenever anyone is going through a stressful situation, it's easy to not be able to take information or process things appropriately,” Whitten said.
There are some mental disorders that are associated with forgetfulness as well. For example, women who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder can experience memory problems.
“The brain is natural at blocking out as much pain as it can for survival,” Whitten said. “This includes details of the traumatic events and other events that happen in the future that bring up similar feelings of fear, reacting, and helplessness.”
Anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder can lead to forgetfulness too.
“Anytime your body feels anxious, its ability to accurately interpret and process information is compromised, making it harder to recall things,” she said. “Your brain is so focused on the worry at hand, that it's difficult to remember things.”
Even depression can impair your memory at times.
“Your body's neurotransmitters aren't at their normal levels when you are depressed,” Whitten said. “Neurotransmitters literally help your brain ‘fire on all cylinders’ and access certain parts of the brain and recall certain information.”
“It's hard to recall something that makes you happy or helps you feel better when you're feeling down,” she added. “It's much easier to think of things when you're happy.”
The National Institute on Aging states that memory loss can be caused by health conditions such as vitamin B12 deficiency, tumors, brain infections, blood clots, dementia, mild cognitive impairment (MCI), alcoholism and medication side effects. Sometimes problems with the liver, thyroid or kidney can also lead to forgetfulness.
Ninah Kessler, a licensed clinical social worker, said in an email that forgetfulness can be caused by something as simple as over-scheduling, or by something more serious like Alzheimer’s.
She said lack of sleep, dehydration, hypothyroidism and overmedication can also lead to forgetfulness.
Although cognitive decline can lead to forgetfulness, Kessler said that major depression can sometimes mimic this and make it difficult for people to focus. Social anxiety and substance abuse could also contribute to forgetfulness.
“I used to wonder why I had such difficultly remembering names until I realized that my social anxiety distracted me from paying attention to the names in the first place,” Kessler said.
Whitten had some solutions for overcoming forgetfulness. She suggested putting more time into self-care, including allowing enough time to relax, rest and exercise. It’s even as simple as taking a 5 to 15-minute break.
Using a planner or calendar can take away the responsibility of remembering everything off the top of your head. You can also write important information down and ask for help from others to remember important events or appointments.
“Practice mindfulness,” Whitten added. “Not only will your anxiety and worry decrease, but you'll feel better all around by focusing on being in the moment.”
“Mindfulness has many different variations, but at the base is enjoying what's in front of you right now,” she said. “Not thinking about the tense conversation you had the night before, or dreading the traffic on the way home, but being present in what's going on around you.”
Kessler said that exercise, proper sleep and nutrition and pursuing passion in life can be beneficial. Learning new skills and information, having a balanced but stimulating environment, as well as neurofeedback (involving mindfulness and self-regulation) are also options to improve memory and reduce symptoms of forgetfulness.
Whitten, Tammy. Email interview. June 25, 2013.
National Institute on Aging. Forgetfulness: Knowing When to Ask For Help. Web. June 26, 2013.
Kessler, Ninah. Email interview. June 26, 2013.
Reviewed June 27, 2013
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith