Mental-Cognitive Symptoms

How Anxiety Can Cause Forgetfulness

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

How Anxiety Can Cause Forgetfulness

Anxiety can have a profound effect on your body, at times causing strange, surprising and distressing symptoms. One symptom that often surprises people is that anxiety can cause forgetfulness.

There are issues related to anxiety that can lead to short-term memory loss and a general inability to remember things, and unfortunately as long as you live with anxiety you put yourself at risk for this forgetfulness to get worse. But there is good news - memory issues caused by anxiety are not permanent. Like most anxiety symptoms, your memory will probably return to normal levels of functioning as your anxiety levels are reduced.

Causes of Forgetfulness From Anxiety

Your memory is actually very fragile. Your ability to create and recall memories is related to a variety of different factors, including things like nutrition and sleep. Did you know that when we sleep, our brains use this opportunity to sort and encode many of the memories that we have made during the day? Therefore, if you're not sleeping as result of anxiety, it's possible that you’re forgetful because your brain isn’t able to properly process what’s happening to you during the day.

However, there are many other potential causes of forgetfulness as well. These include:

  • Cortisol - Cortisol is the hormone your body releases during stress. Cortisol is known to interfere with the process of forming and recalling memories. When you have anxiety, your body and mind are frequently in a state of stress, thereby increasing the amount of cortisol in your system throughout the day. This can have many potential repercussions, one of which is forgetfulness.
  • Distractions A person who is anxious is more likely to be distractible. When we're easily distracted, we struggle to focus our attention. When we're not attending to the information that we're receiving, our brain is unable to take-in that information as a memory. What makes this especially problematic is that the individual is often distracted by their own anxiety.
  • Focus Similarly, a lack of focus can make it harder to even pay attention to the world around you. People with anxiety are often "in their own head." When they hold a conversation with someone else, it's much harder for them to find that their heart is in the conversation. They often find that they simply cannot seem to pay close attention, and that makes it harder for the mind to turn that information into memories.
  • Sleep Deprivation We already mentioned how sleep deprivation can prevent the formation of memories. But sleep deprivation causes a secondary issue as well. When you are sleep deprived you may have trouble concentrating. Both anxiety AND sleep deprivation are linked to reduced concentration, and if you’re not fully concentrating it makes it that much more likely that you will experience memory difficulties.
  • General Forgetfulness Finally, it's important to remember that anyone can be forgetful from time to time. However, when you have anxiety, there's a tendency to assume that your forgetfulness means more than it necessarily does. As in - "I'm forgetting things, does that mean I'm getting older? Does that mean I have a brain disease? Is my anxiety causing permanent memory loss?" It may be as simple as plain forgetfulness, or else simply anxiety-related forgetfulness. Remember, if it’s your anxiety that’s making you forgetful, getting rid of your anxiety will often bring your memory back to the level at which it was initially.

Anxiety causes numerous changes to happen to your brain and the way you think, and all of them can lead to issues that may contribute to forgetfulness.

How to Improve Your Memory if You Have Anxiety

People who are forgetful may benefit by adopting compensatory strategies, which help them to cope despite their temporary memory lapses. For example, if you know you're forgetful, then when someone tells you something important, try to write it down (on paper or using your phone) immediately. Post-it notes can also be used to help you remember important bits of information.

People tend to test their memories when they have anxiety or decide that they don't need to make changes because "this time" they won't forget. There's simply no reason to take that risk, and unfortunately, forgetfulness can actually contribute to further anxiety.

Another strategy you may want to try is starting a blog or journal and using it to write down all of your thoughts. Your blog - like a journal - can be made private so only you can read it, but you can use it to take note of anything you want to remember.

This could include what you did that day, the conversations you had, who you talked to, etc. It could also include any distressing or anxiety-related thoughts and feelings that came up for you during the day.

Apart from helping you to remember important facts, this can also help to improve your mood, which in turn can reduce your anxiety and improve your memory. Finally, keep in mind that taking steps to treat your underlying anxiety condition is likely to result in improved concentration and memory all-round.

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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