Anxiety conditions provoke strong, persistent feelings of worry and fear, often about things and situations you can’t change or control.
With anxiety, you might find yourself stuck in a cycle of nervousness and worry, unable to stop mentally running through dreaded potential outcomes. This anxiety loop can take up a lot of mental energy.
Many people find that this state of near-constant stress and hypervigilance takes a toll on their memory.
Anxiety-related memory loss can lead to more anxiety as you:
- are unable to recall key details at work or school
- forget things, like birthdays and other significant events, leading to tension or conflict in personal relationships
- have trouble remembering things that can make essential daily tasks, like driving, parenting, or cooking, easier (and safer)
Wondering why anxiety causes memory problems? Looking for tips to stop the cycle? You’ll find more details below.
You won’t necessarily find yourself unable to recall key events in your life, since anxiety generally affects working memory.
Instead, you might have difficulty remembering things like:
- task instructions
- directions to a friend’s house
- a child’s play date
- conversations you had with others
- information in a textbook chapter you just studied
A few different factors play a part in anxiety-related memory loss:
Elevated cortisol levels
Ever heard of the stress hormone? Cortisol earns this nickname because it helps kick your body into fight-flight-freeze mode during times of increased stress.
Too much cortisol, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect. People with chronic or severe anxiety tend to have higher levels of cortisol, which makes sense considering that anxiety involves extreme, frequent worry about potential threats.
The constant stress you experience can keep your body stuck in a fight-flight-freeze response, ready to respond to danger.
Lack of sleep
A few nights of poor sleep can leave you feeling foggy, distracted, and unable to concentrate, though you probably won’t experience any major health impacts.
If you live with anxiety, you know it can serve as a powerful distractor.
Your worries might occupy your thoughts to the point where you can’t seem to escape them, even when you try. Worry and distress might eventually become repeating background tracks for your day. No matter what you do, you’re also attempting to manage and cope with anxious thoughts at the same time.
This divided brainpower often makes it harder to give your whole attention to what you want to focus on, since anxiety keeps getting in the way.
As you continue to focus on your worries and their causes, your brain begins prioritizing these potential threats in order to keep you safe.
As a result, other information may begin to fade into the background.
Once you realize you’ve forgotten some important things, you might even start to wonder whether something serious is going on. And you might begin to fixate on those concentration and memory issues.
In turn, minor moments of forgetfulness that might happen to anyone, especially people under stress, stand out more and more. Normal forgetfulness, then, fuels the cycle by becoming another trigger for anxious thoughts.
Habit of pushing back unwanted memories
Many people respond to traumatic or distressing memories by burying them or pushing them away.
If your worries overwhelm and exhaust you to the point where you begin to have trouble functioning, you might try to block or suppress them in order to cope.
You might not forget a specific event entirely, but refusing to think about it can blur the details and help it fade from the forefront of your memory.
Suppression might seem beneficial, but it doesn’t help you address the source of the problem. Unaddressed anxiety can get worse and have an even greater effect on memory and concentration over time.
Some people who have panic attacks find it difficult to recall what happened just before or during an attack. Panic-related memory loss can happen for some of the same reasons that general anxiety leads to memory loss.
Panic attacks — brief episodes of extreme fear — are a type of anxiety. They come on quickly, often without warning, triggering symptoms that can feel overwhelming and terrifying:
- difficulty breathing or feelings of choking
- pounding or racing heart
- sweating, trembling, or shaking
- numbness, tingling, or blurred vision
- feeling of doom
- feeling of losing control
Some people having a panic attack might believe they’re dying or having a heart attack. You might feel totally preoccupied by these unpleasant feelings, lose track of time, and think about nothing except getting through the attack.
Afterward, you might recall the intense panic vividly, but you might not recall exactly how you made it through.
If you’ve had a panic attack before, you might also worry about having one again, especially when you find yourself in a situation that triggers feelings of worry or fear. When this increase in anxiety occupies your focus, you might also notice some memory trouble.
Memory loss can happen for plenty of reasons.
A few of the other potential causes include:
- head injuries
- depression, trauma, or emotional distress
- brain tumors
- regular alcohol or substance use
- side effects of certain prescription medications
Even when you live with anxiety, other concerns can contribute to memory loss, so it’s important to monitor your difficulty remembering things.
Occasional forgetfulness, especially when it accompanies anxiety and poor sleep, might not be serious, but it can worsen over time.
You will want to connect with a healthcare professional, though, when you regularly:
- have trouble completing everyday tasks, such as work responsibilities or traveling from place to place
- lose things regularly
- forget important safety precautions, such as turning off the stove or locking your doors
- ask the same questions or say the same things again and again
- notice problems at work or school or in your personal relationships
- have difficulty remembering scheduled appointments or events
- forget words
Along with mentioning any signs you notice, it might also help to share any signs your loved ones have noticed. For example, maybe you mix up words or tell the same stories without realizing.
It’s always a good idea to reach out if your memory problems cause distress. Worrying about what’s going on can fuel more anxiety, making the problem worse.
Anxiety symptoms usually improve with treatment, but these changes probably won’t happen overnight.
To boost your concentration and recall in the meantime, try these tips:
Write things down
Making a note of important information can help in two ways.
You’re more likely to remember things when you write them down, for one. But, even if jotting down a note doesn’t help you remember offhand, you’ll still have a physical reminder to look back on.
Try keeping a daily journal or planner, or make notes on a large calendar. Prefer more advanced technology? Scheduling apps or smartphone notifications can also offer helpful reminders.
Journaling can also help relieve anxiety. Exploring your worries and their potential causes in writing can help you express them so they don’t take up so much mental energy.
When you have less to worry about, your memory might improve automatically.
Spend time with loved ones
Staying connected to friends and family can help improve memory indirectly.
Enjoyable social interactions can help distract you from anxiety, making it easier to focus on (and remember) other things.
Train your brain
Playing these games won’t just exercise your brain, so to speak. They can also serve as a fun distraction from anxious thoughts.
If games don’t appeal, you can also strengthen your brain and improve memory by:
- studying a new language (try a free app, like Duolingo)
- picking up an old musical instrument (or a new one) and refreshing your skills
- teaching yourself a new skill, like knitting, watercolor painting, or basic home repair
Make time for exercise
Exercising your body can help, too.
Physical activity can help improve your mood, ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and boost overall brain health.
Try starting with something simple, like a 15-minute walk after meals, a weekend hike, or a walk along the beach.
Another benefit? Exercise can help tire you out, so you might fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. When you get better sleep, you might begin to notice anxiety symptoms, including memory loss, begin to ease.
While mild anxiety symptoms might lift on their own, persistent anxiety generally won’t improve without support from a trained mental health professional.
To find therapists in your area who specialize in anxiety, consult a therapist directory or try a quick Google search.
Interested in giving online therapy a try? Start with our recommendations for the top online therapy services.
Let your therapist know about all of your symptoms, not just memory loss. Make sure to let them know if memory problems don’t improve with treatment.
Already receiving some kind of treatment for anxiety and still have symptoms? It’s worth talking to a professional about other approaches.
Not all treatments work for everyone, and it may take time to find the most effective approach for you.
Some people benefit from therapy alone, while others find a combination of medication and therapy most effective.
Memory loss can disrupt your day-to-day life and compound the distress caused by anxiety, but treatment can help.
As your other anxiety symptoms begin to improve, your memory likely will, too.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.