Mental-Cognitive Symptoms

Anxiety and Memory Loss

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Anxiety and Memory Loss

Memory loss can be a confusing and frightening anxiety symptom. It's also an extremely common symptom, but the memories that people lose are often so minute that people don't realize they're losing them.

Memory loss is a byproduct of stress, but various other anxiety symptoms can actually create further memory loss as well. Below, we'll explore the effects of memory loss on anxiety and provide tips for controlling it.

Causes of Anxiety Memory Loss

The main cause of memory loss is a hormone known as cortisol. It's the hormone released during stress, which is why those with severe anxiety (and excessive stress) are more at risk for developing memory loss problems. Numerous studies have confirmed that cortisol contributes to memory loss, especially short term memory loss, because it is a toxin to the cells of the brain.

The longer you deal with anxiety, the more cortisol you'll have in your system, and that means that you're more likely to continue to suffer from memory loss in the future. But cortisol is not the only culprit. Other reasons for trouble remembering include:

  • Distractions Anxiety is an intense distraction, and the mind can only focus on so many things at once. Every stressful thought you have is a mental energy that you're not placing on your ability to create memories and pay attention to the world around you, so while you may be listening to someone or trying to learn, you're missing an important part of your mental energy necessary for memory creation.
  • Intensity Similarly, the mind tends to remember what it thinks is most important. When you have a severe anxiety attack or very stressful thoughts, those things become far more important to your brain than something you heard from a teacher or friend. It's not that you intended to give your anxiety that much importance or forget what you've learned during the day - it's simply that your mind is focused on something it thinks is more important (the fear or danger it feels) and so other issues immediately become less memorable.
  • Sleep Deprivation Anxiety and stress can also lead to sleep deprivation, and trouble sleeping also plays a significant role in the development of memory issues. It's very hard to create memories and recall memories when you do not sleep, particularly since memory creation tends to occur when you sleep and memory recall requires a sharp mind.
  • Social Support On a secondary level, memories are also more likely when a person has social support. For some reason, the people that feel truly supported by their friends and family tend to have better memories. Since anxiety can make it harder to have that social support, memory loss may be a secondary symptom.
  • Normal Memory Loss Finally, people forget things all the time. So often that they don't even realize it's happening. The problem is that those with anxiety tend to focus on their forgetfulness more. They think their memory loss must be occurring for a reason, when it may simply be that they forget like most people do as they age.

Memory loss may be its own cause of anxiety. People are afraid of getting older and forgetting things, so when they forget anything they start to feel as though their minds are failing them.

All of these examples of memory loss are normal, and simply a part of dealing with anxiety. In order to overcome that memory loss, you need to do two things:

  • Learn Memory Improvement Tricks
  • Control Your Anxiety

Memory improvement tools are always important, and when you have anxiety they're even more so. You should be focusing on new and interesting ways to keep your memory active.

Daily blogging is one useful way. Give yourself a personal recap of your day. You don't need to go into great detail, but you should take relevant notes of things that you want to remember and then re-read those notes often in order to keep those memories alive.

You can also try various mnemonics. There are several books available on improving memory. "The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play" is a fairly popular one, and you can find many others at your local bookstore. Be advised though that memory improvements require commitment, and can be lost if you don't continue to practice them.

You should also make sure that you're exercising and sleeping. Exercise increases brain cells and burns away stress hormones, so it's a great tool for stopping some of the issues that lead to memory loss. Memories are also created when you sleep, so making sure that you're getting enough rest is very important.

Steps to Control Your Anxiety

The good news about exercise and sleep is that they're important for anxiety as well, so if you start ensuring that you get enough exercise and rest daily you'll put yourself in a much better position for overcoming anxiety.

But you'll still need to commit to a treatment option that can reduce your anxiety - and ultimately improve your memory - in the long term.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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