What Just Happened? How Anxiety Impacts Memory

Feelings of extreme anxiety commonly present themselves in high-intensity situations, leading to a sensation known as stress. These feelings are manifested during events like cramming for a test, learning a skill, or talking to a new group of people. As a result, we become flustered and overwhelmed when we are trying to accomplish a daunting task or forget basic information in extreme situations. 

Many people see memory loss as a symptom of generalized anxiety, but they do not know the reasons behind it. Memory is important for problem-solving and controlling the intake of information, so impaired memory function could lead to problems concentrating and completing tasks (Morin, 2019). Long-term memory can be severely impacted by prolonged periods of stress and anxiety, so your brain won’t be able to retain more valuable pieces of information. 

Having anxiety and bouts of stress can impact day-to-day functions as well. If you suffer from any form of anxiety disorder, heightened stress, and worry, these behaviors can lead to an inability to complete tasks as efficiently, which can often lead to more stress and frustration. Events that can trigger these emotions are known as stressors, and according to NCBI, “Stressors are stimuli, generally aversive and potentially harmful, that exert impacts on individuals.” Stressors can cause physical and psychological reactions, and can also trigger fight or flight responses as a coping mechanism. 

Temporary side effects from increased stress can include losing things, short-term memory loss, and attention problems. Scientists have concluded that there is a correlation between increased memory problems and stress. In one study, stress manifests during a dangerous or emotionally taxing situation. The amygdala (the part of your brain that governs your survival instincts) may take over, leaving the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that helps store memories and perform higher-order tasks, with less energy and ability to get their own jobs done (Harvard, 2018). Anxiety disorder commonly leads to some of these symptoms, and further exposure to stressful situations can have negative consequences on the brain long term, like the aforementioned memory retention issues. Excess stress can also indirectly lead to other health problems.

Since memory plays an important part in day-to-day life, work performance might be affected by increased stress levels (Morin, 2018). Prolonged stress can be very harmful to the brain, so it is important to manage stress in certain ways so that your brain is not negatively impacted in the long run. This includes activities such as getting good sleep and managing reactions to certain situations. The same Harvard study found that reaching out for help is really important, but so is changing your perception of stress because viewing stress in a healthier way can help you manage it better (Harvard, 2018). The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) lists several tips that can be useful in combating anxiety, such as exercising, which can release endorphins to combat the body’s stress response, along with other activities such as eating well and having a balance between personal and professional life.

Memory is a critical part of our lives in more ways than one. It helps us remember special occasions, assignments, and most importantly, it helps us organize and store information. Experiencing stress in large amounts can interfere with our body’s ability to store complex memories, and reverts us back to primitive fight or flight thinking. Many people are not aware of how stress impacts memory, but studies have shown that there is a correlation between the two. However, it’s important to recognize that stress is not a permanent state of being, so by actively doing things that bring your stress levels down, these negative consequences won’t affect you. 



Sandi, C. (1970, January 01). Memory Impairments Associated with Stress and Aging. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK3914/

Publishing, H. (2018, August). Protect your brain from stress. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/protect-your-brain-from-stress

Meek, W. (2019, December 01). Generalized Anxiety Disorder Can Negatively Impact Your Memory. Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-and-memory-1393133

Tips to Manage Anxiety and Stress. (n.d.). Retrieved October 13, 2020, from https://adaa.org/tips

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