Anyone who has experienced anxiety knows that symptoms can be complex and varied. Sufferers will be familiar with the racing heart, sleepless nights, and feelings of worry that accompany the disorder. However, there is one manifestation of anxiety that seems to get much less coverage.
A few weeks ago I spotted a viral tweet in which an anxiety sufferer highlighted how anxiety had profoundly affected their memory. The responses came thick and fast, with users delighted that someone was raising an issue that receives little coverage. Whilst leaflets and information on anxiety will often list a host of problems that accompany living with the disorder, the impact on memory is often left out. Yet, anecdotally, it seems that memory loss and mental health are much more closely linked than you might think.
“I really struggled with my memory when my anxiety was at its worst,” Hannah*, 23, told me “I’m not sure why, but I’d often find that I’d forget previous conversations or things that my friends had told me. They could get quite exasperated and think that I just wasn’t listening, but I think that there was just so much going on in my head that I didn’t have the space to retain information.”
Speaking to Hannah brought back my own experience of struggling with anxiety. When my mental health was at a particularly low-point I found it incredibly difficult to be present or concentrate on what was going on around me. Anxiety tends to put you in fight-or-flight mode, and instead of paying attention to conversations, my brain would be firing off hundreds of panicked signals. It can be tricky to take in what your friends are discussing when your mind is telling you that your thoughts urgently need to be elsewhere. This distracting thought pattern means that anxiety sufferers might not just be forgetting things — you may well not be encoding memories in a normal way in the first place.
“I can definitely see that I might not have been forming memories,” Hannah agreed. “I didn’t have much of a problem with my long-term memory, but small day-to-day details of things that happened when my anxiety was bad could be a real struggle.”
In addition to experiencing thought patterns that hamper memory formation, the hormones associated with anxiety can also be unhelpful. Sufferers of Generalized Anxiety Disorder tend to have heightened levels of cortisol. Cortisol can help to create memories, but it also makes it difficult for a person to recall an existing memory. This means that in stressful situations when cortisol is particularly high, those with anxiety may find it difficult to recall past events.
Other facets of anxiety also exacerbate an already affected memory — sleep deprivation is common amongst sufferers, who often report finding that constant worry can cause wakeful nights. Since sleep plays an important role in memory and brain function, failing to get eight hours a night can impact what we are able to recollect, wreaking further havoc on our ability to form and retain memories.
If you are concerned about the impact of anxiety on your memory then consider the following:
Speak to your doctor about your problems with memory loss. They will be able to evaluate your symptoms and rule out any other conditions.
If you aren’t already receiving treatment for anxiety, you should consider speaking to your doctor about what options are available. Memory loss is a sign that your anxiety is affecting your day-to-day life, which indicates that it’s time to address the problem. Cognitive behavioral therapy can teach you techniques that will calm your mind and improve your ability to stay focused and present.
Be honest with your loved ones about your experiences. The link between anxiety and memory loss is little known, so opening up about why you might seem more forgetful than usual can enable them to understand what you are going through and better support you.
Implement practical techniques to make your life with anxiety-related memory loss easier. Keep a diary or take notes immediately after or during important conversations or meetings, and ensure that you keep your calendar up to date. Bullet journaling might be a useful and fun way to stay organized and track your day.