What is the link between anxiety and memory loss?

If you often feel anxious, you may find it affects your memory too. Here’s what you can do about it

In a nutshell

Memory loss is a very common symptom of a condition known as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) which affects millions of people. It can be extremely distressing to cope with memory loss and anxiety, but if you can find ways to treat the anxiety itself, you should find that your memory improves too.

What is generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)?

We all feel anxious sometimes, especially in stressful situations such as taking tests, during interviews, or meeting new people. However, if you regularly feel anxious and it’s beginning to impact on your everyday life, it could mean you have generalised anxiety disorder (GAD).

Could this be you?

Typical symptoms of GAD include:
• Feeling worried or uneasy a lot of the time
• Having difficulty sleeping, which makes you feel tired
• Not being able to concentrate
• Being irritable or on edge
• Needing frequent reassurance from other people
• Physical symptoms such as a pounding heartbeat, breathing faster, palpitations (an irregular heartbeat), feeling sick, loss of appetite and "butterflies" in your tummy to name a few.

Did you know? The most recent Psychiatric Morbidity Survey indicates that there are three million people with an anxiety disorder in the UK.

Why are anxiety and memory loss linked?

When we become stressed or anxious, our bodies release adrenaline into the bloodstream. Adrenaline is a hormone produced by the adrenal glands during high stress or exciting situations. This in turn causes the body to release another hormone called cortisol. Both chemicals are designed to give you energy and strength in case you need to fight or run away – known as the ‘fight or flight’ response (see below). Cortisol remains in your body much longer than adrenaline and this can affect the brain cells involved in memory. It does this by disrupting the function of neurotransmitters, which carry information between brain cells. The end result? Your brain struggles to process information and lay down memories.

What is the fight or flight response?

Every animal, including humans, has an in-built fight or flight response. It’s a complicated process that the body goes through whenever it is in a state of high stress, anxiety or fear. Millions of years ago it was designed to help humans escape from predators or fight a threat. These days, the stressful situations are slightly different – most of us aren’t escaping sabre-toothed tigers or fighting neighbouring tribes. However, the body’s response when we’re stressed or anxious is the same. Chemicals prime the body, raising the heart rate to pump more blood to the muscles, dilating pupils to let as much light in as possible and shutting down non-essential body systems such as the immune system, digestion and memory. If the body doesn’t need to run or fight, the chemicals can stay in the body and can lead to memory difficulties.

Keep calm and carry on

Anxiety is often a normal reaction to a stressful situation, so it’s not something we should always try to ‘cure’. However, if you suffer from a serious anxiety disorder, which is a constant problem in your life, ignoring it could cause long-term health problems on top of any memory issues.

Of course, being told to simply ‘calm down’ can be the last thing someone with a GAD wants to hear because it's not always that simple. However, a visit to your GP is undoubtedly your first port of call. He can prescribe anti-anxiety medication such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) and suggest talking therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or neurolinguistic programming (NLP).

Finding an outlet for nervous energy can sometimes help too, because regular exercise releases mood-boosting chemicals called endorphins which can ease anxiety. Or you may prefer something that helps to calm breathing and relax the body, such as yoga. Usually a combination of all of these is what works the best.