40 million adults in the U.S. live with anxiety. It’s one of the most common mental health conditions. Anxiety means much more than just being worried about stuff: it’s a cycle of constant dread about unchangeable situations.
Anxiety and memory loss: How are they linked?
Anxiety is a vicious cycle. Folks living with it often feel trapped in their heads, endlessly going over the same hypothetical scenarios and worst-case outcomes that haven’t happened yet (and in a lot of cases are never going to).
Folks in the brain-science industry call this hypervigilance. Because anxiety hypervigilance loops can potentially go on indefinitely, being stuck in one can be incredibly mentally draining. These hypervigilance cycles can cause cognitive fatigue, which can lead to some folk experiencing memory loss.
tl;dr: Anxiety makes your brain tired until it CBA to fetch memories real good.
Anxiety has many physical and mental symptoms. One of these may be memory loss.
So why can anxiety impair your remember-mechanisms? We look at the links, as well as some ways to make sure it doesn’t fudge your winning streak in the weekly Zoom trivia quiz.
First things first, anxiety isn’t likely to have you waking up with full-blown amnesia. It doesn’t tend to affect long-term memories. It’s your working and short-term memories that might slip under anxiety’s sweaty yoke.
There’s a reason some peeps describe mild anxiety-related memory loss as being a “brain fog.” (It’s like when a psychic Pokemon uses Confusion on you, and it’s super effective.)
You might forget stuff like:
- how to carry out tasks
- conversations you straight-up know you had
- dates for engagements and deadlines
- information you’ve just read
Anxiety-forgetfulness usually comes with feelings of confusion, dissociation, and concentration difficulties — it’s not your standard total sci-fi alien brain-wipe amnesia. There are a fair few neuroscience reasons for anxiety’s short-term memory meddling.
Elevated cortisol levels
Your brain’s regulation of cortisol controls both your mental and physical responses to stress. Y’know when your heart rate goes up in stressful situations? That’s cortisol, baby.
Part of the reason we evolved to respond to stressful stimuli was to make sure we didn’t just shrug and die when the food ran out. Cortisol, and healthy stress responses, aren’t inherently bad. In fact, research suggests that cortisol and our stress response have links to how we form memories.
Mild anxiety can even make you better at remembering (largely negative) stuff in some cases. This makes sense. The stone-age peeps who didn’t remember which cave had the big saber-tooth tiger in it — well, they didn’t last very long. We all descend from the walking monkeys sensible enough to make a mental note of the sh*t that stressed them out.
But too much cortisol is bad. Research suggests that elevated levels of cortisol, especially over a long time, can impair memory retrieval. Living with anxiety is like hitching a ride on the stress express and never getting off. It drives cortisol levels through the roof. This is one of the reasons anxiety is linked with weapons-grade brain fog and forgetfulness.
To add insult to injury, lack of sleep can also cause anxiety disorders. Cheers, the human brain. Yet again you find a twisted way to screw us over.
If you’ve seen films like “Fight Club” or “The Machinist,” you’ll know insomnia and sleep deprivation can make things super weird for you. It won’t surprise you to learn that memory loss can be a part of that. So yeah, anxiety-induced sleep deprivation can absolutely contribute to your wider anxiety memory fog.
Anxiety is a sh*thead
As well as messing with your neurochemistry and reducing your hours-to-winks-caught ratio, anxiety has found a whole bunch of ways to screw with your memory.
24/7 worrying is a big slice of the anxiety pie, and it leaves little room for other thoughts. For example, hypervigilance about an upcoming review at work could make you space that it’s your partner’s birthday in 2 weeks.
Hypervigilance may make your brain not great at retaining and recalling information that doesn’t relate to your personal anxiety focus. Plus, there’s the perpetual-motion-like way anxiety can sustain itself in your mind. Many folks with anxiety start getting anxious about their anxiety, leading to a state of Anxiety-ception.
Memory loss is scary because it can point to serious brain conditions. It’s not uncommon for memory loss and confusion to become an anxiety trigger or focus. Your anxiety leads to memory loss, which leads to anxiety about memory loss, which leads to more memory loss and more anxiety.
Not nice at all.
Repressing memories is one way your mind defends itself against trauma. Trauma-induced memory repression is well-documented. If anxiety-triggering memories are causing severe distress, your brain may decide the best solution is to delete or obscure them.
Your mind can fully or partially suppress memories of specific events. This can make the details blurred, or fuzzy. Say you have a horrible memory of walking in on a partner bonking someone else. Your mind may let you remember the shouting and crying but block out the pornographic visuals of a stranger bouncing on your then-partner’s naughty bits (quite understandably).
For folks living with conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), every memory or situation can run the risk of triggering anxiety. This can lead to large chunks of memory being incomplete. As you can imagine, this may make day-to-day life somewhat tricky to navigate (which in turn can cause more anxiety).
Your mind may have good intentions when it hides memories from you. However, in the long run, this can do more harm than good. Getting rid of the memories doesn’t address your emotional responses to them. This can lead to a whole mess of anxious feelings and intense dread without an apparent cause.
These are more likely to affect the memories leading up to, during, and directly after the panic attack. They don’t tend to be total. Folks usually remember having the attack, but the details and specifics outside of feeling ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh are vaguer than a Senate floor filibuster.
Continuing the theme of anxiety being terrible, having panic attacks can lead to intense anxiety about having panic attacks. This in turn causes more memory loss. It’s the circle of life, but instead of musical cartoon animals, we get terror and confusion.
Am I having a panic attack?
Panic attacks can be hella scary. Many folks that have them for the first time worry they’re having a heart attack (which makes them panic more).
The following symptoms are signs of a panic attack:
- breathing difficulties, such as shortness of breath or sensations of your throat closing up
- a pounding or racing heart
- sweats, shakes, and tremors
- numbness or pins and needles
- blurry vision
- intense feelings of doom and despair
- a strong feeling of loss of control
If you need some strategies for dealing with panic or anxiety attacks, you can check out our handy guide on ways to cope with them.
Obviously anxiety isn’t the only reason for memory loss. There’s a whole bunch of reasons your brain may get worse at storing or retrieving information:
- brain injuries or damage
- different types of cancer
- chemotherapy (memory loss can be a symptom of the infamous “chemo brain“)
- aging (even without dementia present)
- alcohol or substance use disorders
- as a side-effect of some medications
If you’re prone to hypochondria, it’s best not to get too caught up in the other possible causes of memory loss. But a lot of these conditions are pretty serious. You should speak with your doctor if your memory loss symptoms don’t get better or actively become more severe as your anxiety clears up.
There isn’t an overnight anxiety cure yet. Treating anxiety takes time. But there are plenty of things you can do to help your memory recover more quickly in the meantime.
Some of the best tips to accelerate taking back control of your memory include:
- Writing stuff down. It can be helpful to make notes of important stuff you want to remember. But it’s important to not get hypervigilant about this and let it spiral into an obsession.
- Spend time with friends and family. Spending time with loved ones makes you less anxious, in theory. So long as your family are people you feel safe with, being around them fora while could lower your anxiety levels and clear away some of that brain fog.
- Exercise. Studies have shown that physical exercise may benefit your cognitive processes and memory (and mental exercise won’t hurt, either). Doing some sudoku and hitting the gym won’t give you photographic recall, but they do make your brain better at storing and retrieving information.
When to seek medical help for anxiety
We all get worried at times, and we’ll all have stages in life where we need support and help.
As a rule of thumb, it’s best to speak with a doctor if:
- Your anxiety is impeding your ability to go about your day-to-day life.
- You can’t seem to slow the anxiety train despite using some of the freely available self-management techniques.
It’s rare to experience severe memory loss as a symptom of an anxiety disorder. If you’re only experiencing low-level anxiety but have noticeable memory loss, consult your doctor immediately.
Memory loss is a common anxiety symptom. This is for many reasons, from the neurochemical (cortisol) to the fact that if your brain is busy worrying that means it’s not busy remembering.
Sleep deprivation and panic attacks are anxiety symptoms that make anxiety memory loss much worse. It can also make your anxiety worse, putting you in a horrible feedback loop of anxiety and memory loss. The good news is that your memory loss usually gets better as your anxiety is treated.
There’s a whole bunch of things you can do to reduce memory loss and improve memory function, like exercise and writing stuff down.
Memory loss is also a sign of several serious conditions, so you should always mention it to your doc. But it’s usually nothing to worry about on its own.