The mood-brain link: How your mood can mess with your brain power

Feeling stressed out or worried? Your emotions could be affecting your cognitive skills.

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It happens to all of us now and then. You’re stressed out and crabby, and you notice that it’s hard to concentrate. Or you had a bad night’s sleep, and this morning your brain feels foggy and you just can’t get motivated. If you think you’re not as sharp as usual on days like this, you’re not imagining it.

The link between your mood and how well your brain works is stronger than you might realize. Feeling worried or stressed can have an effect on your ability to focus, remember things, and get everyday tasks done. And while you may not be able to avoid life’s stresses, there are tactics that can help you feel more in control.

Sometimes mood problems can signal a more serious problem. Adults over 65 are at a higher risk for depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Depression affects your attention, which can decrease your memory and [ability to process information],” says Lynn Schaefer, Ph.D. She’s a neuropsychologist in East Meadow, New York.

Learn about some common mood issues that can impact your brain power, simple strategies to deal with them, and signs you might need to see your doctor.

Did you know that access to BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan? Check your eligibility.

Mood issue #1: Stress and anxiety

Everyone worries sometimes. Maybe you’re anxious about a medical test, stressed about an upcoming trip, or nervous because you have to speak in public. It may keep you up at night with racing thoughts and impair your ability to focus.

The brain has a central role in stress, because it’s the brain that decides if the stress is helpful or harmful.

Feeling stressed and anxious about something that’s tied to a specific event or problem is totally normal. Your anxiety goes away once the stressful event is over. In fact, a little stress can be helpful in short spurts.

Why? Your body releases “fight or flight” hormones — like adrenaline — that can sharpen your attention and speed. This helps you avoid dangers like an oncoming car or a falling rock. It can also make it easier to focus and accomplish tasks, such as when you have a deadline to meet.

But prolonged exposure to stress — especially when the source of the stress is outside your ability to control — can be harmful. Longer-term stress releases the hormone cortisol, which over time can actually cause neurons to lose connections in the memory centers of the brain. This may be why people with chronic stress can have problems with memory.

If you feel anxious all the time, you may have an anxiety disorder. People with this kind of mood disorder experience intense stress and worry. According to the Mayo Clinic, some common symptoms include:

  • Difficulty controlling the worry
  • Feeling nervous, restless, or tense
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Forgetfulness
  • Sense of impending danger, panic, or doom
  • Trouble sleeping

It’s a good idea to talk to doctor if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms.

What you can do about it: If you find yourself getting fixated on not-so-wonderful thoughts, try setting aside a 15- to 30-minute block of dedicated “worry time” to focus on them, recommends Schaefer. Meditation, deep breathing, and other mindfulness exercises can also bring a sense of calm. So can cardio exercise like a brisk walk.

But if those anxious thoughts are interfering with your life, call your doctor. Chronic anxiety can be treated — and treating it can help your brain health.

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Mood issue #2: Feeling depressed

Lots of everyday things can put you in a bad mood. Let’s say you had an argument with your spouse or your car broke down. Or maybe you’re upset because someone you love is sick. You may feel unmotivated or distracted. Emotional ups and downs like this are normal. Luckily, most bad moods are temporary. People can snap out of them, accomplish their daily tasks, and go back to doing the activities they enjoy.

But if your sadness or anxiety lasts for more than two weeks, you might have depression. Depression is a serious condition. Symptoms can include:

  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest in activities you once loved
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble sleeping

Just as importantly, depression can also cause cognitive symptoms. These can include:

  • Slowing of mental speed
  • Problems with attention and concentration
  • Problems with working memory
  • Difficulty making decisions

Both the mood symptoms and cognitive symptoms arise from the same underlying issue — a brain that isn’t in great health. And the mood symptoms and the cognitive symptoms seem to reinforce each other.

A dark mood causes a person to disengage from activities that stimulate the brain, such as hobbies and spending time with friends. Without this kind of stimulation, cognitive problems can emerge. And these problems can lead the person to withdraw even more. This spiral can be difficult for someone to break out of on their own.

What you can do about it: If you think you’re depressed, book an appointment with your doctor. They can evaluate you, outline a treatment plan, and even refer you to a mental health professional. A combination of talk therapy and medication can often get depression under control.

For everyday bad moods, healthy lifestyle habits can help change your mindset and get you back on track. Get your body moving with a walk, bike ride, or yoga class. Eat a healthy diet. And try some mindfulness techniques like meditation or keeping a gratitude journal.

And stay connected to other people. Social isolation can impact your brain too. In fact, research has connected it to a poor ability to think. It even can increase dementia risk, according to the National Institute on Aging. A few ideas: Meet a friend for coffee, call a sibling just to say hi, or join a volunteer group in your community.

Another great workout regimen? BrainHQ’s science-backed brain exercises, which can sharpen your memory, focus, and speed. Did you know that BrainHQ may be included with your Medicare Advantage plan? Check your eligibility today.

Mood issue #3: Not getting enough sleep

A poor night’s sleep can make you feel cranky the next day. But chronic sleep problems can also lead to cognitive problems over time, according to the Sleep Foundation. That’s because without enough sleep, your overworked brain cells struggle to do their job.

“If you’re exhausted the next day, it’s going to affect your concentration and your memory,” Schaefer says. In fact, a 2022 study shows that poor sleep in middle age often causes issues with memory, learning, and the ability to concentrate years later. In another study, people showed signs of anxiety the next day after just one sleepless night.

That’s because the brain is actually very busy while you’re catching a snooze. You may not know it, but while you sleep, your brain is rehearsing everything you learned during the day. This helps it lay down long-term memories. And the systems that clean the fluid that your brain floats in kick into high gear, ensuring you start the next day with a fresh, clean environment for your brain to do its thinking in.

So if you’re not getting enough sleep, it’s not just a problem for your mood — it’s a problem for your brain health.

What you can do about it: Try getting into a regular sleep routine and aim to get 7-9 hours of sleep a night. These snooze-better tips can help:

  • Avoid caffeine late in the day. And skip the late-night booze.
  • Avoid eating a meal right before you go to bed.
  • Don’t scroll through your smartphone or tablet in bed. The blue light can mess with your sleep.
  • Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  • Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet.

And after a good night’s sleep, you’ll find that your ability to concentrate will sharpen. You’ll have an easier time remembering things — like your new bedtime!

Another great way to wake up your brain every morning? By getting in some brain fitness time. Try BrainHQ, a brain-training program designed by leading scientists that rewires the brain to help you think faster, focus better, and remember more. And it may be included at no cost with your Medicare Advantage plan. Check your eligibility today.

Additional sources
Depression statistic: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Anxiety disorder symptoms: Mayo Clinic
Anxiety and forgetfulness: Mayo Clinic
Social isolation: National Institute on Aging
Sleep problems: Sleep Foundation
Sleep study: Journal of Aging and Health
Loss of sleep and anxiety: Nature and Human Behavior