The researchers from the University of Innsbruck, Austria presented the participants with video clips of different situations. They showed a sex scene as a positive situation, while a negative clip depicted an act of violence. The clips pertained to both stressful or "challenging" situations in different ways.
The participants then answered some memory tests that measured their unconscious ability to recall details of where and when things happen.
The results showed that the participants did poorly in the memory tests. Unlike the neutral clip, both the sex scene and violent scene affected the participants' ability to memorize where objects had been and to notice patterns in two different tasks, suggesting that overwhelming stress causes the brain to choose reflexive action over calculating situations, known as the "fight-or-flight" response. This brain "mode" affects memory retention, making it hard to remember when and where events took place.
The research brings a new perspective on understanding why people who have been through extreme stress, such as war veterans or victims of crime, struggle to remember these events.
"Changes in cognition during high arousal states play an important role in psychopathology," said lead researcher Dr. Thomas Maran. "We aimed to make this change measurable on a behavioral level, to draw conclusions on how behavior in everyday life and challenging situations is affected by variations in arousal."
Based on the findings, the researchers assess that the brain may respond to stressful stimuli by inhibiting long-term memories, which can make us evaluate situations erratically. According to the researchers, challenging moments may affect our hippocampus, a region of the brain that stores our long-term memories. During potentially dangerous situations, the brain may prevent this region from retaining details of memories, though further research is needed to demonstrate how this works.
The fight-or-flight response is our body's survival mechanism, which helps us react immediately to life-threatening situations. It's a sequence of hormonal changes that help us make a decision in an instant whether to fight off the threat or flee to safety.
Little is known about how these reactions occur, but previous studies have suggested that repeated activation of our stress response can lead to adverse psychological effects, such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse/addiction. (Related: City living intensifies brain stress response and increases mental illness risk.)
While it is important to keep our physical bodies in shape, it is just as important to ensure that our minds remain sharp and alert. HealthLine.com shares some of the ways to combat stress and avoid resorting to your fight-or-flight mode:
Read more about keeping your mind healthy at Mind.news.