The Relationship Between Anxiety and Memory Loss

Young women stares into the distance while sitting up in bed.

Anxiety is a normal reaction to stress with specific benefits, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Anxiety not only alerts you of dangers, but it helps you prepare for and pay attention to them. Excessive amounts of fear or anxiety, however, can lead to anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders make up the most common type of mental disorders, affecting nearly 30 percent of adults at some point in their lives.

One part of the body affected by anxiety and stress is the nervous system, which plays a primary role in basic functions like memory and learning. As a result, persistent anxiety and memory loss are associated.

Examining the Stress Response

Understanding how anxiety and memory loss are connected begins with the stress response. Your body’s “fight-or-flight” reaction helps you counter real or perceived life-threatening situations quickly, and that includes when you’re anxious.

How It Happens

The stress response begins in your brain, according to Harvard Health Publishing. When you perceive danger, a distress signal is sent from the eyes or ears to an emotional processing area of the brain (amygdala), which interprets the images and sounds. If they are considered dangerous, a distress signal is sent to the brain’s command center (hypothalamus).

All of this takes place so quickly that you aren’t aware of what’s happening. That applies to a series of events that includes your body pumping adrenaline through your bloodstream, causing physiological changes like increased pulse rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, and sharper senses. If your brain still perceives danger, it releases cortisol to keep your body on high alert. Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone and acts like a built-in alarm system to control mood, motivation and fear.

Similar to how a car regulates speed, your body is able to regulate its stress response. If the threat has passed, cortisol levels will fall, and your body presses the “brake” on everything. If the threat is still present, your body will keep certain parts of the nervous system “pressed down” like a gas pedal.

Note that the stress response will continue when the threat is simply perceived to be present. If the life-threatening event has passed but you still perceive it to be present, the stress response will continue. If the threat wasn’t life-threatening, your body can overreact to the stressor, which may lead to negative effects on your physical and psychological health.

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The Link to Memory

The stress response helps you confront life-threatening situations, and its benefits extend to psychological functions like memory. This notion is verified in research, although there are caveats.

Everyday anxiety can help you remember things better, according to a study published in Brain Sciences. Researchers split participants who had levels of anxiety into two groups: those with “low” and “high” anxiety. No participants had clinically significant levels of anxiety. The two groups were asked to answer questions about the spelling or meaning of words overlaid onto neutral images, like a house, or negative images, like a car accident.

Memory performance didn’t differ based on anxiety levels, but the study found that the group with higher anxiety was able to remember words displayed over negative images. “Their memories were more emotionally tinted,” said the study’s co-author Myra Fernandes, “and as a result rendered more memorable.” The study verified previous research suggesting that emotional content can strengthen memories.

Of course, there is a limit to that effect. “To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory,” according to Fernandes. “But we know from other research that high levels of anxiety can cause people to reach a tipping point, which impacts their memories and performance.”

Excessive anxiety can exhaust your body and undermine benefits associated with the stress response. Chronic stress can lead to physical problems like headaches, breathing problems, and increased risk of hypertension, heart attack, and stroke. There is also negative psychological impact, such as with your memory.

How Anxiety and Memory Loss Are Connected

The stress response sheds light on how repeated anxiety can lead to memory loss. When your body reacts to real or perceived threats, electrical activity in the brain increases and produces adrenaline and cortisol. Memory loss can result if that process occurs when fear or anxiety is excessive or persists beyond developmentally appropriate periods. That’s because anxiety and stress tax the body’s resources.

Research like the study published in Brain Sciences acknowledges the relationship between high levels of anxiety and memory loss. One study in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry found that anxiety disorder is interrelated and inseparable with loss of memory. It added how anxiety is likely an early predictor of future cognitive decline and possibly future cognitive impairment.

People who have anxiety disorders like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder, agoraphobia, and specific phobia can experience memory loss. For instance, Behavior Therapy found that individuals with clinically severe GAD had greater difficulty remembering childhood attachment experiences than non-anxious counterparts. Some adult anxiety may be rooted in childhood experiences that leave a child uncertain of whether a protective figure is available in times of trouble. The study discussed how repressing such traumatic experiences can lead to memory issues. Additionally, worry is associated with substantial cognitive avoidance, which prevents the processing of disturbing emotional material.

There is still a great deal to learn about the connection between anxiety and memory loss, which is an ongoing research topic. For instance, thanks to a first-of-its-kind study, there is now evidence that acute stress disrupts the process behind collecting and storing memories. Researchers found that short-term stress activated certain molecules that in turn limit processes in the brain’s learning and memory region. As a result, given the link between anxiety and stress, both long-term and short-term anxiety can impact memory.

Understanding Anxiety

The implications of anxiety on memory and learning is a major area of study in psychology. Research and theories have developed in an effort to understand this broad topic, mental processes overall, and specific mental health disorders.

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