Emotional Wellbeing


Mental Health


Mandy Kloppers

The connection between anxiety and memory loss

Our memories can be affected when we are under periods of stress or experience some sort of disturbance in our mood. Having a significant anxiety disorder like GAD (Generalised anxiety disorder) can create some of these problems routinely, leaving people operating below their normal level of memory functioning. The following is a brief overview of some of the ways and reasons memory is restricted during anxiety and worry.

How Anxiety Can Affect Working Memory

There are several different memory systems in our brains that function in different capacities. For example, our long term memory helps us remember information and events from the distant past, whereas something called “working memory” helps us keep things in mind as we actively work with them.

Working memory is critical for us to solve problems effectively and manage chunks of information in the present. When this system is not operating at normal levels, it can lead to mistakes, difficulty completing tasks in a desirable way, difficulty concentrating on a variety of things, and problems multi-tasking. Unfortunately, it is strongly influenced by worry and anxiety.

This can be a major problem in your work and personal life. GAD can cause your working memory to become hindered by your worry, causing you to forget important tasks or appointments. You may make more mistakes at work or have trouble juggling everything you need to do at home.

More examples of what you might experience include:

  • Not remembering where you parked your car in a parking lot
  • Frequently losing things, like your keys or your phone
  • Repeating things in conversation because you can’t remember if you already said something
  • Difficulty recalling directions or information someone gives you
  • Trouble remembering items you want to purchase in the store

Memory Problems With GAD

Research dating back to the 1970s has shown that working memory and anxiety to be related. Studies have consistently shown that when people experience anxiety, particularly when worry is at high levels, a trademark of GAD, working memory capacity suffers.

What this means is that for people with chronic high levels of worry, like many people with GAD, school/work performance, ability to use complex problem-solving strategies, and decision-making skills may be compromised.

In some cases, medication may be needed in order to control your anxiety appropriately, but this can be a huge help in handling your symptoms. Learning to control and minimize worrying can make a large difference in your working memory.

If you would like to check your memory, try this online memory test

Research shows that people with high anxiety produce more of the stress hormone cortisol, which, on it’s own is known to affect the brain and may impair memory.

Researchers from Ohio State university have found that long-term stress and anxiety can cause memory loss and inflammation to the brain.

They conducted a study on mice and found that those who were exposed to a stressful situation – an intruder, in this case – forgot how to exit a maze they had previously been able to navigate from memory.

They saw this happen only to the mice who met the intruder multiple times which lead the scientists to believe that one-off stressful situations do not have the same affect in triggering forgetfulness.

The chronically stressed mice appeared to have changes in their brains. The most significant difference was inflammation brought on by the immune system.

This inflammation was caused by the mice experiencing ‘repeated social defeat’ after being confronted by a dominant mouse on multiple occasions. This mimics the physical consequence and psychological stress humans experience when in the army, in an abusive relationship or when being bullied.

In conclusion, prolonged stress and anxiety can cause the immune system to inflame the brain which, in turn, leads to short-term memory loss.

Treatments for GAD

If you have GAD, especially if you have a high level of worry, you may notice memory and attention problems. If so, this is an especially good reason to seek treatment for your GAD. Intervention can be a huge help, particularly if you find it interfering with your job, education, or personal life.

Look for a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. He can help you manage your anxiety in a way that is healthy and sustainable. From coping skills for calming yourself to memory tricks to help you remember important details in the meantime, therapy can be a major tool in helping you get back to your daily routine. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is one of the most effective treatments for GAD.

Mandy X