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. Anxiety can alter your everyday routines, and it can also have an impact on your memories.

Memories can be affected when you are under periods of stress or experience some sort of disturbance in mood. Having a significant anxiety disorder like GAD can create some of these problems routinely, leaving you operating below your normal level of memory functioning.

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How Anxiety Can Affect Working Memory

There are several different memory systems in the brain. The long-term memory system helps us remember information and events from the distant past, whereas working memory helps us keep information in mind as we actively use it.

Working memory is critical for solving problems effectively and managing chunks of information in the present. When this system is not operating normally, it can lead to mistakes, difficulty completing tasks properly, difficulty concentrating, and problems multitasking. Working memory is strongly influenced by worry and anxiety.

This can be a major problem in your work and personal life. Worry can hinder your working memory, 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. You might experience lapses such as:

  • 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

Research dating back to the 1970s has shown 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. School/work performance, the ability to use complex problem-solving strategies, and decision-making skills may be compromised.

Treatment for Anxiety

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 your symptoms are interfering with your job, education, or personal life.

Look for a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. They 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, 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. 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.

2 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