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How anxiety affects memory

Anxiety is a normal response to a stressful stimulus. It not only alerts us to impending danger, it also prepares us to confront them when they arise. However, an excessive amount of anxiety, especially when there is a disproportionate stimulus or no stimuli at all, signifies a mental health problem called anxiety disorder. Researchers are beginning to discover a link between anxiety disorders and memory loss.

Understanding Normal Stress Response

Stress or perceived stress stimulates the body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ response, which begins in the brain. When you sense impending danger, the stimulus is sent from your senses (ears, eyes, etc.) to the part of the brain that processes emotions, the amygdala. The amygdala, then, interprets the stimuli your senses perceive. If the stimulus is dangerous, signals are sent from the amygdala to the hypothalamus, which stimulate other glands to release certain chemicals to effect the ‘fight-and flight’ reaction.

Adrenaline and cortisol are the main hormones released during a stress reaction. These hormones effect the psychological and physical changes, such as dilated pupils, increased heart rate, heightened senses, in your body to put up a reaction to the stimuli.

These changes usually continue until your perception of the stressor stops; however, in individuals with anxiety disorder, this stress response may be stimulated and persist in the absence of a life-threatening stimulus. This leads to maladaptive physical and psychological changes.

How Anxiety Affects Memory

Research has shown that everyday anxiety and stress responses consolidate memory, helping us to remember things clearly. In a study published in Brain Sciences, a group of participants with higher anxiety levels remembered words displayed over negative images. This suggests that these participants had a better memory of these words because they were emotionally tinted – linked with an emotionally charged event that possible caused them anxiety.

One study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2003) found that anxiety disorder and memory loss were interrelated conditions in an elderly cohort, and that anxiety may be an early predictor of future cognitive impairment.

The study shows that people who have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), specific phobia, agoraphobia, and panic attacks also experience memory loss.

Furthermore, anxiety is associated with cognitive avoidance, which prevents disturbing information from being processed and retained. The basis for this, some researchers say, is that acute stress response releases certain substances that impede the brain’s learning and memory centers.

However the evidence is by no way conclusive, earlier studies looking at memory and anxiety showed no association or biases between anxiety and memory loss. There were a couple of large studies done in the late 1990s and early 2000s looking at this exact thing, which couldn't find a significant overlap.

Suggestions for Memory difficulties in Anxiety Disorders

So what if you are someone with anxiety who has started to notice difficulties with your memory. If memory loss has begun to cause personal problems or problems at work and school, it is time to get help.

The first thing to do is to seek a through assessment. A therapist can then help you with techniques to lower your anxiety and boost your memory. These cognitive behavioral techniques help you understand and track your thoughts and emotions to avoid stressful stimuli and prevent setting off unnecessary stress reactions.

You may also adopt coping skills to help lower your anxiety.

These strategies include:

· Get support from friends and family

· Practice mindfulness

· Learn your triggers and avoid them.

· Keep a positive outlook

· Maintain a healthy diet.

· Increase your physical activity.

· Get adequate sleep

· Stay well hydrated

· Practice grounding technique

You may also try memory aids such as writing notes of things you want to recall later, making images of what you want to remember, learning new skills, and color-coding objects in your home to remember where they are.

Anxiety may make us remember things quite fast, but excessive exposure to stress reactions, as seen in anxiety disorders, potentially could do the opposite. The key lies to having your memory and anxiety assessed, considering other contributors and then working with your doctor to create a suitable holistic management plan.


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