Can Depression Cause Memory Loss - When To Get Help

February 27, 2024

Depression and Forgetfulness

I remember a season of depression I went through a few years ago. Things that seemed to make sense previously no longer resonated the same way that they used to. One of the symptoms of depression is loss of joy in activities once found pleasurable. I really knew that this was the case when I found myself no longer wanting to watch NBA basketball or listen to music. I couldn’t remember why those things used to bring me joy, but that’s what happens in the middle of these depressive episodes. Things tend to move slower and We experience some cognitive impairment. Thinking is just a tad more tough as we fight off the depressive symptoms, like holding a beach ball under water while somebody asks us to do long division. You know the solutions aren’t that complex, but with your attention just a tad more divided there is a cognitive decline.

Tasks of daily life such as sleep and eating also can become more difficult to engage in a healthy way. People will report either oversleeping or having bouts of insomnia, or excessive weight gain or loss. I was of the oversleeping and weight loss variety, though I’m not sure there’s a rhyme or reason to that sort of pairing.

All of this can combine into a special little cocktail where executive functioning over all begins to decline and this is where memory issues can play a role. In this blog we are going to unpack a bit of why this and what we might want to do about it.

Causes of Memory Loss

I would like to also give the disclaimer that we are going to be addressing minor memory impairment in this post. There are obviously a number of causes when it comes to memory functioning such as Alzheimer’s disease or traumatic brain injuries. If you are experiencing more than some minor memory problems, I highly suggest that you work with your healthcare provider to get to the root of the issue. It is true that mental health issues can contribute to more long-term memory loss and these could be the root causes of negative memory performance, but to go into detail about all of the issues that may or may not arise in this realm would be too complex of an undertaking for a blog that you found on the internet.

For this, I am going to assume that you are used to experiencing a better memory and are also displaying some depression symptoms and google has lead you to this place looking for some reassurance and/or confirmation that there is a link between these two.

So, on to our question. Can clinical depression lead to a decline in memory function? The answer is, yes it certainly can. A recent study in 2018 found a robust correlation between health adults struggling with major depression and self reported memory complaints. Additionally, tests showed that there is a higher correlation of memory issues with images shown in negative contexts as opposed to neutral contexts. It is also worth noting that the people who experienced a more significant decrease in memory functioning were also those who were showing an increase in the severity of symptoms that come with major depressive disorder.

Additionally, a 2016 showed that people taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors showed a decrease in memory performance after 8 weeks of taking the medication. This study focused on tricyclic antidepressants did not account for how memory issues might have persisted after the body adjusted overtime to the medication, thus more research is likely needed.

Treatment Options

If you are noticing this taking place for yourself, let’s first begin with a nonjudgmental stance towards the topic. You are a biological being who experiences ups and downs of life, and your cognitive function is just another measure of that. The brain is simultaneously incredibly resilient and fragile at the same time. And so if you notice that your executive function has taken a decline as a result of depression, let’s use that as an indicator that it is time to do some work. When we show up curious to our symptoms it makes it easier to find the path forward.

So if you are experiencing some brain fog and your mind is not feeling as sharp as it once did because of depression, then I believe the best thing to do is treat the depression. Of course, my craft is treating mental illness  and so if you were to ask somebody else you might get a different answer, but if we see the memory issues are a result of the depression I think we should go to the root cause.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been one of the first line treatments for depression for years, but at Thrive we have found other modalities of therapy to be more effective. A number of our therapists use Internal Family Systems, somatic approaches, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

ACT helps us to gain space from our thoughts and not see them as invariably true, all while constructing for ourselves what a valued life is. I’ve never met a depressed person who did not want to be deeply connected to life in the way that they once were. One of my favorite questions when it comes to depression comes from the founder of ACT, Stephen Hayes. In his book a liberated mind he asks the question, “What would you need to stop caring about in order to not feel this way anymore?”

I love this question because it so quickly reveals our values. When I was going through the feelings of hopelessness that depression brings along, I remember looking at my son who was only three months old. Even in the midst of how I was feeling, I still felt filled with love for him. And I wanted my zest for life back so I could be the father that I wanted to be. If I didn’t care so much about being a good father, the sadness I was experiencing wouldn’t have been as painful. I would have to stop caring about my son so much to not feel the weight of that pain. Of course, this is not something that I wanted to do, thus it became the first step in learning how to integrate the pain I felt in order to reconnect.

Our brains also tend to prioritize what it sees as more important. Increases in cortisol levels have been shown to be detrimental to recalling memories, which makes sense if you think about it. Imagine you are in the middle of the woods and a bear surfaces. Your body is going to immediately dump cortisol throughout your body, preparing you to either run away or engage in a fight. How important is it to be taking in the scenic environment you are in? Are you connected to curiosity and trying to make memories about your surrounding and the bear? Of course not, your brain is one track minded at this point and you only have one goal, which is to find safety.

Unfortunately, our body runs the same sort of automatic processes in our modern age. Thus when we are experiencing either a more hyperaroused or hypoaroused state, our brains do not prioritize either being able to recall past memories or make new ones. Chronic stress can also make for poor memory as it is shown to have a similar rise in cortisol levels. Who doesn’t find themselves to be more forgetful during a season of peak stress?

All in all, if you are experiencing some minor memory problems and depression or even anxiety is highly present in your life, I would encourage you to seek out a therapist to address those symptoms first. If your symptoms of memory loss are getting worse or you feel that they are disproportionate to the mental health issues you are experiencing, it might be a good idea to seek out some more specialized medical care.


When it's time for more help than what you can manage at home we are here to help. Many of our therapists specialize in depression and you can take a look through there profiles HERE. Our online membership has additional resources as well for you to keep up with your mental health work, there are many free courses as well as some more in-depth work in our paid resources. Find some accountability with someone you trust, and dive into the work, it will be worth it on the other side.

Take the next step

Contact Us

Contact Us

Please fill out the contact for and one of our team members will get in touch with you in the next 48 hours.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.