Anxiety is a state of preoccupation. It holds the mind hostage by focusing on some dreadful event and playing it over and over and every which way. Your mind is not concerned with making memories; it’s concerned with a perceived threat. Thus, anxiety can cause the “mind to go blank, ” as memories are not well formed if trauma is simulated by an anxious condition. When memories aren’t made, the mind processes that as memory loss: Where did you put your keys? Who knows, you were obsessing about tomorrow’s business meeting...
How Anxiety Affects the Brain
It is a common complaint of those with generalize anxiety disorder that they are just not remembering all they need to. Research is mixed as to whether memory is actually compromised, but many sources state that concentration is affected. Impaired concentration would interfere with both making memories and retrieving them.
In a real emergency, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. The heart rate speeds up as does respiration. Many other physiological changes occur such as the adrenal glands start to produce adrenaline. The adrenaline speeds things up, and it also makes cortisol, a steroid hormone. Cortisol has good intentions here as it tries to increase blood glucose. It tries to help in fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism, all with the goal of making more energy available to the body for the crisis. Unfortunately, when it is continuously in the system due to anxiety, it can have negative effects.
The Effects of Cortisol
Short-term memory: Cortisol can have a positive effect on short-term memory. Cortisol mixed with adrenaline can have an effect on the hypothalamus to create a “flash bulb memory.” This detailed image is useful to avoid the situation if it arises again. However, it may also be the explicit image that stays in one’s mind after a traumatic event.
Long-term memory: Cortisol, over a long period of time, has a negative effect on the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps create memories. Some researchers have referred to the hippocampus as the “search engine” of the brain, helping to code and sort information. If the hippocampus is interfered with, the information may not be accessible.
Blood pressure: Cortisol can increase blood pressure. For those prone to vascular disease, this could mean that cortisol caused by anxiety could cause problems with some of the smaller blood vessels. Many of these tiny blood vessels are in the brain, and if they burst due to high blood pressure, they could cause memory loss and more.
Overcoming Anxiety Related Memory Problems
- To create a memory, try to simplify the environment and clear the mind. Give total focus to the information to be remembered, turn away to see if the information can be recalled, expose again until it can. If results don’t come, wait until a calmer time and try again. Fear about not remembering the information can impair memory, so the best attitude is one of confidence and patience.
- To evoke a memory, try to simplify the environment and clear the mind. In a meditative way, allow the mind to survey related information until the memory presents itself. If the memory doesn’t come, allow the mind to wander onto related subjects and wander back freely. Again, emotional pressure will impede memory retrieval.
- Write down important information. This works in two ways: to help solidify the memory and also to have a physical reference if the memory can’t be accessed.
Feelings of anxiety may begin in response to a reasonable fear, however, if that fear doesn’t resolve, sometimes an individual remains preoccupied with worry long after the original stimulus for the fear has dissipated. If an elephant is charging, figuratively or literally, it’s not uncommon for the one being charged to have a vivid picture of the moment in their mind, but little other memory. This is true of anxiety.