How Generalized Anxiety Disorder Affects Memory

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If you experience generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), you have chronic and persistent anxiety. Your friends and loved ones may describe you as "nervous" or as "a worrier." You may feel anxious about daily situations and your worry is likely out of proportion or irrational. While GAD can impact your everyday routine, it can also impact your memories.

Our memories can be affected when we are under periods of stress or experience some sort of disturbance in our mood. Having a significant anxiety disorder like GAD can create some of these problems routinely, leaving people operating below their normal level of memory functioning. The following is a brief overview of some of the ways and reasons memory is restricted during anxiety and worry.

How Anxiety Can Affect Working Memory

There are several different memory systems in our brains that function in different capacities. For example, our long-term memory system helps us remember information and events from the distant past, whereas something called “working memory” helps us keep things in mind as we actively work with them.

Working memory is critical for us to solve problems effectively and manage chunks of information in the present. When this system is not operating at normal levels, it can lead to mistakes, difficulty completing tasks in a desirable way, difficulty concentrating on a variety of things, and problems multitasking. Unfortunately, it is strongly influenced by worry and anxiety.

This can be a major problem in your work and personal life. GAD can cause your working memory to become hindered by your worry, causing you to forget important tasks or appointments. You may make more mistakes at work or have trouble juggling everything you need to do at home.

More examples of what you might experience include:

  • Not remembering where you parked your car in a parking lot
  • Frequently losing things, like your keys or your phone
  • Repeating things in conversation because you can't remember if you already said something
  • Difficulty recalling directions or information someone gives you
  • Trouble remembering items you want to purchase in the store

Memory Problems With GAD

Research dating back to the 1970s has shown that working memory and anxiety to be related. Studies have consistently shown that when people experience anxiety, particularly when worry is at high levels, a trademark of GAD, working memory capacity suffers.

What this means is that for people with chronic high levels of worry, like many people with GAD, school/work performance, ability to use complex problem-solving strategies, and decision-making skills may be compromised.

Treatments for GAD

If you have GAD, especially if you have a high level of worry, you may notice memory and attention problems. If so, this is an especially good reason to seek treatment for your GAD. Intervention can be a huge help, particularly if you find it interfering with your job, education, or personal life.

Look for a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. He can help you manage your anxiety in a way that is healthy and sustainable. From coping skills for calming yourself to memory tricks to help you remember important details in the meantime, therapy can be a major tool in helping you get back to your daily routine.

In some cases, medication may be needed in order to control your anxiety appropriately, but this can be a huge help in handling your symptoms. Learning to control and minimize worrying can make a large difference in your working memory.

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Article Sources

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  1. Balderston NL, Vytal KE, O’Connell K, et al. Anxiety Patients Show Reduced Working Memory Related dlPFC Activation During Safety and Threat. Depress Anxiety. 2017;34(1):25-36. doi:10.1002/da.22518

  2. Vytal KE, Cornwell BR, Letkiewicz AM, Arkin NE, Grillon C. The complex interaction between anxiety and cognition: insight from spatial and verbal working memory. Front Hum Neurosci. 2013;7:93. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2013.00093

Additional Reading

  • Hayes et al (2008). Journal of Abnormal Psychology.