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The Unexpected Way That Anxiety Can Affect Your Memory

If you're struggling to retain or recall information, it could be down to anxiety.Illustration by Maddy Young

Forgetting anything is frustrating: walking into a room with no recollection of what it is you went in for, going to say something and the words dying on your tongue, a message slipping your mind. These instances of forgetfulness are a fact of daily life, everyday occurrences, that are, more often than not, nothing to worry about. But it turns out that there are things that can have a detrimental affect on your memory, and one of those, is anxiety.

Deciphering whether you have anxiety rather than worry usually comes down to how much of an impact it’s having on your daily life: if it's stopping you from doing the things you’d usually do, it could be that you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder, so seek help from a medical professional. Anxiety in itself is extremely upsetting and distressing, and to notice it having an impact on the functioning of your memory is even more concerning, but it turns out that the two are linked.

There are different ways that anxiety can affect our memory. The first is our bodies ‘fight or flight’ response, the physiological function that occurs when we perceive something to be a threat to our ‘survival’, during which stress hormones are released. ‘Things like cortisol and also adrenaline are released at a time of stress as part of the "fight or flight system" and those impair your memory big time,’ Dr Heather Sequeira, consultant psychologist who runs PTSDTraumaWorkshops, tells me. This release can affect our memory in two ways. ‘First of all it can stop your memories actually being encoded in your brain so it means they’re not there at all, but also it can stop them being retrieved so even if they are there, it’s hard to get your memories back out.’

It’s a scary thought that at a time when we might need to retain information, our physiological responses render it impossible. There's an evolutionary suggestion for this mechanism that actually does make a lot of sense. ‘When there’s a lot of stress your brain has to prioritise certain things that are going to keep you alive rather than random things that you might not need to remember, so that’s one of the possible reasons,’ Dr Sequeira explains. ‘There’s not enough brain space to be trying to focus on everything, so it just has to focus on stuff that will keep you alive.’

Another symptom of anxiety is distracted thinking: a racing mind, thoughts tumbling over one another competing for attention like unruly children. The mind of an anxiety sufferer is a hectic one, so it’s not that surprising that this would get in the way of processing new information. ‘A lot of us tend to overthink things and when we’re anxious we analyse things and go over and over it,’ says Dr Sequeira. ‘Again it’s that idea of brain space: when we’ve got an incredibly active mind and we’re trying to think through all these different problems, our brain often isn’t very focused on trying to remember new things. We’re very distracted so we tend to find it harder just because there’s so much going on in our brain, even when there’s quite mild anxiety.’

The final contributing factor? Sleep. ‘When we’re anxious we don’t always sleep properly and sleep is one of the ways we consolidate our memories and make them more permanent,’ explains Dr Sequeira. ‘So if we’re not sleeping very well then the memories won’t consolidate properly.’ Clearly the overwhelming situation that anxiety can induce is not a ripe environment for creating new memories and the inability to recall certain things can cause further anxiety in itself, potentially creating a spiralling situation in which it gets worse.

Whilst Dr Sequeria tells me that they’re at the ‘tip of the iceberg’ with understanding exactly why and how the brain responds, research is being done into it. A recent study using mice found that prolonged episodes of anxiety can have a detrimental effect on memory; but not one-off instances. They noted changes such as inflammation in the brain of mice who were ‘bullied’ by an ‘alpha mouse’ and found that the mice developed issues with spatial memory and avoided social contact for up to 4 weeks, suggesting a depressive type of behaviour.

What's good, is that the mice recovered after 28 days. Dr Sequeira tells me that, in general, the affect of anxiety on memory are reversible. ‘The only exceptions are people who maybe had very very chronic stress right from a very young age, very high levels of PTSD. There is some evidence that those people may have poorer memories.’

That said, another study which used twins and monitored levels of anxiety found that the twin who developed dementia had a history of higher levels of anxiety compared to the twin who did not develop dementia. They also found that people who experienced high anxiety at any time in their lives had a 48% higher risk of developing dementia compared to those who hadn’t. Co-author Margaret Gatz, said those that developed dementia ‘are people that experience more than usual symptoms of anxiety’ and are ‘frantic, frazzled people’.

As well as seeking help from a medical professional, Dr Sequeria recommends self-help management techniques such as mindful meditation as a way to manage stress, for example the app Head Space. ‘ If you can bring down stress a little bit that will help with your memory and therefore you won’t get as stressed therefore you should remember things more therefore you get even less stressed so you get a positive spiral as opposed to the opposite which is a negative spiral,’ she explains.

The impact on memory is only one of the detrimental impacts that an anxiety disorder can have on your life, so if you feel that you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder, or any other mental health issue, seek help from your GP on the next best step for you.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Ask An Adult: How Do I Know If My Worry Is Actually Anxiety?

We Need To Find A Better Way To Talk About Anxiety

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Follow Chemmie on Twitter @chemsquier

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.