Can Anxiety Cause Memory Loss?

  Monday, March 29, 2021
Clinically reviewed by Dr. Carrie Jackson

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There are many damaging effects of long-term anxiety. 

Those who experience high levels of constant stress often deal with a decline in mental and physical health. It's essential to understand how much anxiety can affect one's health. While anxiety is the body's healthy response to danger--it can be cognitively damaging if one has an anxiety disorder. 

The human body has its defense mechanism against potential threats. The brain can perceive life-threatening situations and tell the body to prepare itself. 

According to Harvard Medical, emotions like anxiety and stress are actually beneficial in times of danger. These emotions make us pay attention to dangerous situations with care. Stress and worry help us respond to situations faster because we are more alert, and therefore, we can react quickly if we need to. 

When our brain perceives a dangerous situation, it sends signals to some different areas. These signals tell the body to prepare for fight or flight to protect oneself. Signals travel to the cerebral cortex, which is in charge of decision-making.  

Before the cerebral cortex, the brain activates the amygdala, which is in charge of emotional regulation and works with other parts of the brain in charge of memory. In addition to starting these parts of the brain, the body also releases a hormone called Cortisol. Cortisol causes us to react as if we are in a dangerous situation.

If we feel anxiety, we are more aware that there is a potential threat that we might need to deal with or avoid. In this way, anxiety protects us because it keeps us attentive in response to harm that can occur to us. 

Generalized Anxiety Disorder 

Anxiety becomes a problem when it turns into a disorder. An anxiety disorder can disturb brain function, including memory retention. 

People who have Generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, experience continuous high-stress levels in everyday situations, whether the situation is threatening or not. Many symptoms come with anxiety, and people with GAD experience these symptoms regularly. 

Symptoms include elevated heart-rate, high blood pressure, stomachaches, irritability, restlessness, and difficulty breathing. People who have generalized anxiety disorder might be described as worriers or as stressed-out. They are constantly on edge, even in situations that are not dangerous or threatening. 

The brain will react to a situation as if it is dangerous so long as the person perceives it as harmful. That means the brain will react as if there is danger even if there is no danger present. 

GAD has the label of a disorder because the brain responds to safe interactions the same way it responds to threats. Those who have GAD live in constant stress as they deal with many of the symptoms throughout the day. This overstimulation of the brain in response to life affects brain function over time, and it also can distort memory.

How Anxiety Affects Memory 

Healthy anxiety is stress or alertness that helps us remember situations better. Since we are alert with a regulated amount of anxiety, we can respond to the situation and remember the situation better. 

However, anxiety can cause memory loss because the brain's anxious response taxes the body's resources. It's more challenging to remember things correctly when we're stressed out and tired. This is why people with GAD are tired and irritable yet restless at the same time. They also may have difficulty remembering details or may forget things.

Anxiety begins to take its toll on the brain because the amygdala is constantly reacting to situations. Since the amygdala is in charge of emotions, people who experience constant stress have distorted feelings associated with normal interactions. The constant strain on the brain causes people to misremember things. 

Those with GAD attach stress to ordinary situations. They might interpret or recall these events as though they were dangerous or uncomfortable. 

Protecting Memory

Our memory is vital to our daily lives. We count on our ability to recall events, ideas, and people to remain healthy. We must learn to manage our anxiety, so it serves rather than hinders us. Ultimately, we need to protect ourselves from excessive anxiety to avoid its adverse effects like memory loss. 

There are many ways to regulate our anxious feelings. 


One of the best ways to regulate anxiety is to journal. Whether it be through online journaling or a handwritten journal—writing is a proven antidote to anxiety and depression. 

Anxiety comes when we worry. This stress might come from fear of the future or regret from past events. In both cases, our thoughts take us out of the present moment and into a spiral that can be difficult to control. 

Writing in a journal helps us to remain mindful of the moment. Through writing, we can express and acknowledge our feelings and then decide how to respond to what we're feeling. A journal online can help us navigate through anxious tendencies by sorting out what's bothering us. From there, we can reflect and respond by coming up with ways to avoid or deal with situations that cause anxiety.

Our social interactions with close friends and family can also help us regulate our emotions. Talking with friends allows us to express ourselves. These interactions also take us out of our heads and into the real world. Good relationships foster healthy and fulfilled lives. Socializing can help us to protect ourselves from anxiety and, therefore, protect us from memory loss. 

Cognitive Stimulation

Muscles in the body become stronger after we use them while working out. They will also deteriorate over time if we let our bodies remain idle. Our brains work similarly to muscles because our brain function will deteriorate without stimulation. 

Developing hobbies like crossword puzzles, painting, writing poetry, or playing an instrument are ways to keep our brains active. If we want our minds to continue functioning, we must have activities to engage our brains' capabilities. These activities should challenge us and give us a sense of accomplishment. 

Through these hobbies, we protect our minds from the harmful effects of anxiety. 

Even though our body produces anxious feelings to protect us, an excess of these feelings can harm our brain function. We keep our brains healthy by regulating the anxiety we feel. The intentional effort to protect our mental health will allow us to live happier and more fulfilled lives. Cognitive stimulation, social interaction, and journaling are simple ways we can maintain this mental health.

Health Disclaimer

JournalOwl is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, medical treatment, medication, or therapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or qualified mental health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptoms or conditions. JournalOwl is not authorized to make recommendations about medication or serve as a substitute for professional advice. You should never disregard professional psychological or medical advice, or delay in seeking treatment, based on anything you read on JournalOwl’s website or platform.

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