Anxiety is a condition that involves a great deal of "overthinking." Many people with anxiety find that they're trapped inside of their own head, focusing on bad memories and having a hard time living life to the fullest.
So it may be a bit of a surprise to learn that anxiety can cause memory problems. But memory problems are actually fairly common and can affect many of those that suffer from every type of anxiety.
Memory Problems = Anxiety?
Anxiety is mentally draining and can make it harder to remember and recall information, leading to memory issues. The more severe your anxiety, the more this occurs, so take our free 7-minute anxiety test to score your anxiety severity and see treatment ideas.
Memory Loss From Anxiety or Anxiety From Memory Loss
Anxiety is the type of condition that can also make you worried about issues that are not actually a concern. People forget things every day, but those with anxiety have a tendency to believe that their memory loss is worse than the rest of the population. Learn more about your anxiety with my free 7-minute anxiety test.
How Anxiety Can Cause Memory Loss
Anxiety is a condition that not only affects you mentally - it affects you physically as well. When you have anxiety, you go through brain chemistry changes and hormone changes that could, in theory, change the brain and lead to issues with memory. But there are several primary issues that relate to memory problems and anxiety. They include:
- Stress Hormones The stress hormone cortisol is released in large amounts during times of anxiety. Cortisol affects the brain and leads to memory loss and problems with recall. While it's not entirely clear how this occurs, these studies indicate that those with anxiety are likely to either struggle to create memories or forget them over time. It is not believed that these memory problems are permanent or represent any type of loss of brain function.
- Distracted Thinking Those with anxiety are also prone to incredibly active minds, When your mind is this active, your brain is not often as focused on the new things you're trying to remember, and so memories are not fully created. Distracting thinking also makes it harder to focus on memories that you're trying to recall, as anxiety tends to consume your thoughts. Indeed, in some ways, your anxious thoughts are battling your normal memories for space in your mind, and sometimes the normal memories will lose.
- Sleep Loss, etc. - Anxiety also affects secondary issues which may affect memory. For example, anxiety can make it harder to sleep, and sleep deprivation has a known effect on memory and recall. Anxiety may also change priorities (in other words, making you remember bad things and forgetting good things), and anxiety may cause to you focus so much on the present that you rarely think about the past and the memory eventually fades away.
Also, remember that memory loss is a normal part of aging, even when you're in your 20's or 30's. Maintaining memories takes work, and not everyone spends much time thinking about their past - or even their present. It's not uncommon to forget things you thought you'd never forget. Those with anxiety tend to blame this on anxiety, when in fact it may be due to nothing at all.
What Can You Do to Improve Memory?
Improving your memory starts by simply integrating more strategies to ensure that your brain is kept active. For example:
- Start a Daily Journal Keep a daily journal of the things you did during the day and the things you want to remember. Be as specific as possible, and then re-read that journal often to keep those memories alive. You'll start to train your brain to remember these things better, and over time your memory should improve overall.
- Exercise It's not clear how, but studies have shown aerobic exercise may create more brain neuron connections, which in turn should improve memory. Exercise is also an important part of relieving anxiety, so you get both benefits when you go jogging more.
- Learn Mnemonics There are many different tools that improve memory. Simply keeping your memory active is one step. Another is to work on mental strategies that are effective at creating memories faster and with easier recall.
- Sleep Sleep is actually when most memories truly become memories. During sleep, your brain processes various thoughts and turns them into long-term memories. Make sure you're sleeping often to keep your memories alive.
Of course, all of this means nothing if you continue to suffer from anxiety since the memory problems of anxiety will still affect you. That's why it's so important that you learn to stop your anxiety - not just manage it - if you want to improve your memory problems forever.
I've worked with thousands of people whose anxiety affected their memories. Start with my free 7-minute anxiety test now. The test is a revealing way to learn more about your anxiety and how to treat it.
Lupien, Sonia J., et al. Stress hormones and human memory function across the lifespan.Psychoneuroendocrinology 30.3 (2005): 225-242.
Heffelfinger, Amy K., and John W. Newcomer.Glucocorticoid effects on memory function over the human life span. Development and psychopathology 13.03 (2001): 491-513.
Kim, Jeansok J., and David M. Diamond.The stressed hippocampus, synaptic plasticity and lost memories. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 3.6 (2002): 453-462.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Dec 06, 2017.