Is anxiety making you forgetful?
In this blog I will consider the link between anxiety and forgetfulness. A review of how memories are stored and retrieved will precede consideration of the effects of anxiety upon memory, why this happens and what happens when anxiety levels decrease.
How are memories stored and retrieved?
Your brain encodes every experience as a memory which is transported first to the short-term memory store where it is stored for a few seconds. It then moves to the working memory where it is processed and organised for a short time for immediate access. The memory is then either discarded, if no longer required or moved to long term storage.
Some memories are remembered forever whilst others may fade through lack of importance or relevance, or as a result of being rarely retrieved over your lifetime.
Tulving (1972) classified 3 categories of long term memory: episodic memory, procedural memory and semantic memory.
Episodic memory relates to experiences (or episodes) that have occurred in your life. It involves conscious thought and is declarative e.g. knowing that it snowed last year on Christmas Day. You know that a specific experience has occurred, and you can deliberately recall the experience and, should you choose to, impart information about it i.e. you “declare” what you remember.
Procedural memories are the skills we unconsciously use within our daily lives e.g. we know how to dress ourselves, ride a bicycle. The memory is retrieved unconsciously at the time it is required.
Semantic Memory refers to our knowledge of the world. e.g. knowing that the Nile is the world’s longest river. These memories are consciously retrieved and are also declarative.
How does anxiety affect memory?
Anxiety has been shown to negatively impact upon the efficiency of working memory. This can result in difficulties in remembering items within daily routines e.g. forgetting where you have put your keys or forgetting to take the rubbish out. It can also affect your ability to multi-task at home or at work. Decision making may be compromised and problems that require sophisticated problem-solving techniques may seem more challenging.
Why does anxiety affect memory?
When you feel a high level of anxiety the stress hormone, cortisol, is released into our bodies which reduces the efficiency of your working memory. Interestingly, it has no effect on declarative memory (i.e., what you know). (Luethi et al, 2009). From an evolutionary perspective this is potentially a benefit as when we find ourselves in a stressful or high anxiety provoking situation, the ability to recall what we know e.g. “This tiger is dangerous, I should back away slowly,” is more helpful than being able to solve complex problems at that time.
What happens when anxiety reduces?
As you begin to feel less anxious your working memory will begin to restore to normal levels. This restoration occurs as the cognitive energy that was previously engaged in managing your anxiety now becomes available for general cognition tasks including executive function and recall.
The restoration time will vary in accordance with the nature and duration of the anxiety you were experiencing. Prolonged chronic anxiety will have a significantly longer recovery period than a short period of hyperarousal (e.g. a panic attack).
In conclusion, anxiety related memory loss arises from your cognitive energy being shared more widely than normal. As a proportion of your cognitive energy is diverted to control and manage your anxiety, there are less resources available to support your working memory which can result in your experiencing difficulties with recall. As your anxiety levels reduce, you will find that your working memory capacity will begin to restore to previous levels.
Do you feel anxious too often and for too long?
Hypnotherapy can help you to not only reduce the intensity and frequency of your anxiety symptoms but also change the way you think about anxiety, using the power of your subconscious mind.
Contact me today for a free consultation.