Questions about MS? Call us on 0808 800 8000
Photo: Woman with MS reading in the library

Tips for dealing with memory and thinking problems

If you experience cognitive difficulties, strategies and tools to compensate are not just useful, they may be essential to keep up your lifestyle, relationships, and self-esteem.

Many people can identify the areas that are causing problems and work out ways to deal with them.

Tips and exercises for memory and thinking

We worked with physiotherapist Ruth to create some simple tips and exercises to help you with your memory and thinking. Introducing just a few small changes to your daily routine can make a big difference.

Watch our film to find out how these simple coping strategies help Tom, who's living with relapsing MS, and how they can help you, too. There is an audio described version of this video.

Our tips

I forget things easily

  • Many people forget things and getting stressed or upset about it will make it even harder to remember things. Relax, take a few moments to calm down – try slow, deep breathing or other relaxation exercises. Your memory will sometimes clear.
  • Different people remember things in different ways. As well as writing things down, you might find recording them onto a mobile phone or Dictaphone helps.
  • Many modern mobile phones have built in reminders, alarms and calendars that you can use. You can also use emails to send reminders to yourself.
  • Rhymes, rules or phrases may help you remember things. For example using a mnemonic such as ‘Richard of York gave battle in vain’ to remember the colours of the rainbow, or ‘i before e except after c’ to remember the order of letters. You could make up your own that are relevant to you.

I have trouble keeping track of what I'm supposed to do during the day

  • You may find that keeping a diary – either electronic or paper – to write down everything you plan to do during the day can help. Similarly, using an organiser, calendar or alarms on a mobile phone can help.
  • If you have a smartphone, there are many apps available to help you remember appointments, names and places. You could even use the camera to help remember people, places and activities. There are probably many other apps which can help too. Remember, it is normal to need help keeping track.
  • If you prefer, you could try using a Dictaphone to record notes to yourself.
  • Try to establish a routine for doing things, so there’s less for you to actively remember.
  • A whiteboard or chalk board in your home may be a good place to jot down notes to yourself.

I sometimes forget to take my medication

  • Set reminders for yourself at the time you’re supposed to take your medication. You could use your mobile phone, a wristwatch with a beeper, your computer or an alarm clock.
  • Putting notes or Post-its in obvious places can help. For example, if you take your tablets in the morning, a note stuck to the bathroom mirror might be enough to remind you.
  • A tablet organiser may also help. Some tablet organisers have alarms to remind you when to take your medication.

I find it hard to remember what I need to buy at the supermarket

  • You could try making a master shopping list of things you regularly buy and printing off multiple copies. Before going to the shops, check the list and tick off the items you’ve run out of.
  • If you do your shopping online, most companies allow you to save ‘favourites’ for each time you return.

I can get lost easily, even when I'm going somewhere I've been before

  • If you’re driving, try using a GPS device or ‘sat nav’.
  • If you’re on foot, many modern mobile phones have a map function.
  • Visualising can also help. For example, don’t just learn the directions for getting to the library – picture the route. You can use a camera to take photos of the route in case you forget it.
  • If you find you forget where you park your car while out shopping, you could try attaching something to the car aerial to help you see it.

I put things down and forget where I’ve put them

  • Have a set place for essential things – like car keys, or your glasses – and always put them there.
  • If you find you’re still misplacing important things, keep everything in one place – for example, in a canvas tidy over the kitchen door. Label the pockets to make it easier to know what should go where.

I find it hard to keep track of what everyone in my family is doing, and where they are

  • You could try placing a large family calendar in a prominent place, such as the fridge door, where everyone in the household can write down what they’re doing and when. Check things off as they are finished.
  • Ask your family to remind you what they are going to do, and what they have done, especially things that matter, such as doctor’s appointments.

I'm easily distracted, and sometimes forget what I'm doing in the middle of doing it

  • Focus on one thing at a time. Turn off the TV or radio, and try to reduce other distractions when you’re talking to someone or working on a particular task.
  • Try working somewhere where you are less likely to be distracted by other people.
  • Turn your phone off, or put it onto voicemail or answer phone, so you’re not interrupted.
  • Tell people that you are easily distracted, and ask them to take this into account when they speak to you.

I can’t always find the words I want to say – it’s like they’re on the tip of my tongue

  • Try using other words, or describing the word you want to use. Stressing about finding exactly the word you want to use is likely to make it harder for you to come up with it.
  • Tell those close to you about your word-finding problems, and how you would like them to help. Do you want them to prompt you or not?

I find it really difficult to concentrate sometimes

  • Fatigue and tiredness can both affect concentration. Plan your work so that you’re doing your most demanding tasks when you’re at your best.
  • Pace yourself, and give yourself regular breaks.
  •  Focusing on one task at a time can make it easier to concentrate.
  • Try to work out what else affects your concentration: room temperature? Time of day? Amount of sleep? Presence or absence of particular people? Take this into account.

Following a conversation can be hard for me

  • Letting people know that you’re struggling can avoid any misunderstandings. You can ask people to speak slower, or one at a time if it makes it easier for you.
  • Impose a delay in the conversation and ask others to respect it. That way you have time to gather your thoughts together before expressing them.
  • If you find it easier talking one to one, consider asking people to talk to you on their own.

I find it hard to think when I'm put 'on the spot'

  • Ask for – or give yourself – more time to take in or retrieve new information. Tell other people that you may be slower, but that you will get there in the end.
  • Try to plan ahead as much as possible, to avoid situations where you will have to respond very quickly.
  • As in other situations, try to relax. Panicking is likely to make your memory and thinking problems even worse.

When I get too hot, my thinking gets muddled

  • There are a number of things you can do to stay cool – such as having regular cold drinks, or sucking on an ice cube or frozen fruit, or spraying cold water on your face and wrists.
  • A floor or desk fan can help to keep the temperature down and the air flowing in a room.
  • Specific cooling items are available, including cool scarves, ties, wristbands, hats and vests. An ice pack wrapped in a cloth inside a hat helps some people.
  • Avoid hot baths if you need to think afterwards.