When Jake quit smoking weed, he assumed he would stop forgetting where he put his keys, or the toilet paper his girlfriend asked him to pick up on his way home. “I just thought I was an idiot,” the 35-year-old tells me. Jake, as it turned out, was struggling with depression. But the shame of not being able to remember things only made him more depressed. “I stopped being a stoner so I could have a clearer head, now I’m forgetting everything?” he laments.
It hardly seems fair, but memory loss is a common symptom of depression. “I have days where I feel like I’m being gaslighted or getting dementia,” a user on the r/Depression subreddit posted three years ago. Similar threads discuss the inability to follow conversations, losing track of time and space and not remembering childhood memories that other siblings can vividly recall.
A possible explanation for why depression-related memory loss can be so severe is that people only tend to remember events that match their current mood, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as “mood-congruent memory.” This is particularly unfortunate when you’re depressed because it means that you’re more likely to recall sad memories and perpetuate the cycle of feeling like nothing good ever happens, when in fact, you’re just forgetting the good stuff.
Another reason why we’re more forgetful when we’re depressed is because “one of the ways the body tries to protect itself from depression is by disassociation, which can make us feel disconnected from our brain, body and thoughts, causing this memory loss or brain fog,” Brent Metcalf, a psychotherapist and clinical social worker, explains. Although dissociation is often presented in movies and TV shows as a dramatic personality-splitting process endured only by people who’ve had significant trauma, in reality it can be very subtle. “It could be something as simple as not feeling as if you’re connected to your body, thoughts, surroundings and environment,” Metcalf explains.
Clinical psychologist Holly Schiff agrees that memory loss is a common side effect of depression, but she blames stress hormones like cortisol, which tend to be released at higher levels when we’re depressed. “Too much cortisol in the brain inhibits the growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus, which is very important for memory formation,” she warns. “Consequently, the stress response activated by depressive episodes may affect memory.”
Excess cortisol also messes up your sleep, which makes it harder for the brain to repair itself. For all of these reasons, multiple studies show that untreated depression can lead to memory impairments and declines in cognitive functioning.
At the same time, some antidepressants, like SSRIs, can increase memory loss as well — a brutal double whammy. Still, this shouldn’t deter those with depression from seeking medication if they need it. Schiff also suggests a few strategies that may help combat forgetfulness — e.g., keeping a calendar, using digital reminders and making an effort to focus on just one task at a time. Plus, directly treating the depression — whether that’s through therapy, exercise, medication or a combination thereof — should help coax your memory to come back, too. It may just take a little time, patience and a willingness to write down your grocery list before you leave for the store.
At least, that’s how it’s gone with Jake. Once his girlfriend pointed out that he might be depressed, he started to approach his symptoms more proactively by hitting the gym and going to bed earlier. And little by little, his memory is improving, even though he’s still a forgetful guy. “But I’m not as hard on myself about it anymore,” he tells me. “That’s made it easier to focus.”
And when you’re depressed, that’s just about the best thing you can remember to do.