Anxiety is a natural and useful response to stressful stimuli. It’s how our body knows to prepare itself for danger. Anxiety disorders amplify this response, however, keeping our body in fight-or-flight mode more often and for longer. Severe and prolonged anxiety can result in physical and mental implications, one of which is your memory.
Many people describe anxiety’s influence on your memory as brain fog. But it’s a little more complicated than that. In times of stress and anxiety, your memory can be affected. We’ll go through how, why and what you can do about it.
Also, see how to elevate your mental health with thought exercises and which anxiety myths you may fall into.
Can anxiety cause memory loss?
Yes, anxiety can contribute to memory loss. However, if you have an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t mean your memory will be negatively affected. And to be clear, anxiety doesn’t wipe out big chunks of your memory or make it hard to recall childhood memories.
It’s more like little things, like directions, dates and things you just read. That’s because anxiety affects your working and short-term memory.
- Short-term memory: Think of short-term memory as a whiteboard that you use to take down the information and then erase it after a couple of seconds. It only stores information for a brief period. Short-term memory is what you use when someone tells you their phone number, and you input it into your phone. The second you’re done, you don’t remember it.
- Working memory: With working memory, information is temporarily stored so that you manipulate and process it. You use this information to perform cognitive tasks.
Anxiety’s impact on your short-term and working memory is often called “brain fog.” You’re forgetful, you fumble through tasks you know how to do and concentrating is difficult. But why does this happen? Let’s break it down into the intersections of memory and anxiety.
Elevated cortisol levels
To understand anxiety and memory, we must discuss the stress response. Anxiety and stress are natural responses to stressful stimuli. It’s how the body warns you something is wrong and preps you to react. It does this by triggering the autonomic nervous system and its two subparts, which are crucial to how our body responds to stress.
The sympathetic nervous system triggers what’s known as the “fight-or-flight” response, which includes increased heart rate, rapid breathing and muscle contracting. Another key part is increased levels of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. When the threat passes, our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and returns us to our baseline. With anxiety, the fight-or-flight response happens in the body even when there are no dangerous stimuli.
Cortisol is the key to how anxiety and memories intersect. The right amount of cortisol can actually improve your memory. Studies have shown that those experiencing mild anxiety are more likely to remember negative things. However, persistent cortisol from anxiety can impair your memory and cognitive function. The more often you experience anxiety, the more cortisol is in the body and the more your memory is impaired.
Sleep and anxiety have a unique relationship — anxiety can make it hard to sleep, and sleep deprivation worsens anxiety. It can become a vicious cycle of feeling on edge and fatigued.
Prolonged sleep deprivation can have negative effects on your brain function and memory. If you haven’t gotten enough sleep, you may have trouble remembering or focusing because your brain didn’t get enough time to create the pathways necessary for memory consolidation while you slept.
The relationship between anxiety and memory feels like forgetfulness, difficulty concentrating and confusion. Now add the actual feelings of anxiety to that — the worry, the distress and the physical responses. Anxiety is a state of hyperstimulation where your brain may prioritize potential threats. Understandably, you may miss some things.
More specifically, when it comes to panic attacks, memory loss is common. Those who suffer from panic attacks can find it hard to recall what was happening before and during their attacks. They remember the panic, but other things fade into the background.
How do I stop anxiety and memory loss?
You can’t control the stress response your body has. So the rising cortisol levels and hyperstimulation will still happen when your anxiety spikes. However, the impact it has on your ability to function is within your control. Try these things to keep your memory sharp and your anxiety managed.
- Mental exercises for memory: There are various memory games and exercises you can use to boost your memory and overall brain function. Try games like sudoku or crosswords. Or you can try learning a new language.
- Write things down: This can help in two ways. First, it helps you concentrate on what you are thinking about, making it more likely to remember. Secondly, writing things down also serves as a reminder to which you can refer back. Don’t worry; if pen and paper aren’t your things, you can opt for the notes app on your phone.
- Exercise: Integrating exercise into your lifestyle is a great way to boost your mood and manage anxiety symptoms. It doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise. Simple walks can have a significant impact on your mental health.
- Work toward controlling your anxiety: If left unchecked, anxiety can impede your ability to function. Working with a therapist using cognitive behavioral therapy can help you manage your symptoms and control the negative impacts anxiety can have.
When should you seek help for your anxiety and memory loss?
If you’re prone to memory troubles, monitoring it to ensure it doesn’t worsen is important. Even if you follow the tips we suggest, you may find that your memory troubles start to keep you from functioning.
If any of these things regularly happen, it may be time to speak to a healthcare professional:
- You have a hard time concentrating enough to complete daily responsibilities.
- You regularly forget to do things that pertain to your safety — like forgetting to turn off the stove or lock your doors.
- Your relationships change as a result of your memory troubles.
- You forget words.
Remember that memory troubles aren’t something you have to face alone. Make sure you share your journey with your friends and family, who may also be able to tell you things they’ve noticed.
Too long; didn’t read?
Anxiety and memory are connected. Thanks to the cortisol levels in the body and the state of hypersensitivity, your memory can be affected when you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms. But it’s not large chunks of memory that you can’t access; your short-term and working memory is impaired. Tactics like writing things down and mental exercises can boost your memory, but ultimately getting your anxiety in order will have the biggest impact.
If you want more, find out how to improve your mental health with daily habits and relieve anxiety without medication.
The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.