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How does anxiety affect memory?

Uncategorized May 29, 2020

I have been inspired to write this blog for two reasons, firstly because many of my clients who have anxiety, with or without depression, tell me that they struggle to remember things. Secondly because as part of my psychology MSc we have been studying the effects of anxiety in exam performance.

If you have read any of my previous blogs, then you may know that my experience of anxiety and depression lead to me failing my first degree. I always knew deep down that my mental health was a huge factor in my abilities to study and pass exams so studying this from an academic viewpoint is really reassuring!


Memory is a very complicated thing

When researchers look at memory, there are lots of different aspects of memory that can be measured. Most people have heard of long and short term memory and are familiar with the differences, especially If you have ever been around a person with degenerative issues such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

What many of my clients report having issues with is the everyday requirements of memory such as kids play dates, tasks for work or household errands, this is called working memory.

We all have a certain capacity for our working memory and studies have shown that it can be affected by how much information we have to process and distractions around us (Shi, Gao and Zhou, 2014).


Anxiety is a very complicated thing

Much of the research into anxiety and memory has been done with students around test anxiety and then test performance, it is well documented that anxiety causes a decrease in cognitive performance during complex tasks (Hembree, 1988).

The problem is that anxiety is very complicated, many of my clients struggle with generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, phobias, panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as well as issues like depression and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) that often accompany anxiety.

Sometimes clients have more than one type of anxiety or an anxiety that is there all the time or only in specific situations. When we are talking about the effects of anxiety on memory then, the most likely explanation is that it depends entirely on the individual.


What affects working memory

As I mentioned above, working memory capacity is affected by how much information we are trying to process and what distractions there are around us. I know from personal experience how difficult it can be to even think in stressful or busy situations, so remembering important details can easily get lost.

Studies have also shown that working memory can be affected in those with PTSD in that those with a history of PTSD struggled with their working memory in emotion-related contexts (Schweizer & Dalgleish, 2011)


Anxiety and overwhelm

When we talk about anxiety in general, we are talking about the negative or worrying thoughts that people have that cause them to feel fear or anticipation. This sets off a physiological reaction which many people know as the fight or flight response.

What I know from the many clients I have worked with over the years is that these thoughts can become overwhelming and all-consuming leading people to avoid activities and become less than their normal selves.

The theory that makes the most sense to me is that these anxiety-based worry cognitions actively take up space in the mind that leaves less space for the attention to be on the current task (Eysenck et al., 2007). This is quite simply because your mind becomes overwhelmed by the amount of thoughts and information it has to process.


So what can we do about improving memory for anxiety sufferers?

Simply, you need to learn to manage your anxiety. Hypnotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are well known and well used interventions that aim to teach you how to overcome your anxiety.

You can book a free consultation with Siobhan Booth, our clinical hypnotherapist to talk about how our hypnotherapy and CBT courses and sessions can help you with your anxiety.

Simply book your phone call here


References used:

Shi, Z., Gao, X. and Zhou, R., 2014. Emotional working memory capacity in test anxiety. Learning and Individual Differences, 32, pp.178-183.

Hembree, R. (1988). Correlates, causes, effects, and treatment of test anxiety. Review of Educational Research, 58, 47-77

Schweizer, S., & Dalgleish, T. (2011). Emotional working memory capacity in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Behaviour Research and Therapy, 49(8), 498–504.

Eysenck, M. W., Derakshan, N., Santos, R., & Calvo, M. G. (2007). Anxiety and cognitive performance: Attentional control theory. Emotion, 7(2), 336–353.


Discover which common negative thinking patterns you have.

The way we think has a huge impact on our mental health. If you are looking to overcome your anxiety or just improve your mental health then first you need to know what thoughts are making things worse.

This download gives you a list of the most common ways we think negatively. All you need to do is see which ones you do most.

Also, keep an eye on your emails! I will be sending you a really useful video that goes with this exercise.