Around 30% of people have anxiety disorders and everybody on the planet experiences some kind of stress. Everyone also experiences some memory loss and an increase in blank moments as we age. But imagine being in your 20s or 30s and honestly searching keywords like ‘early dementia symptoms’ or ‘how young can Alzheimer’s present?’
Maybe you don’t have to imagine – I know my own search history’s had similar phrasing after I forget somebody’s name on the sidewalk.
When your memory is affected by anxiety, insidious little thoughts like ‘But what if it is a brain tumor?!’ can seem even more reasonable. Suddenly you’re Googling tumor symptoms for an hour instead of being productive or resting, furthering your stress and occupying your mind all because you had a little mind-blanking moment earlier in the day.
My mind went blank. What just happened?
It’s likely that your stress response took over! The human body’s stress response goes, roughly, like this:
- A “Threat” occurs and a distress signal goes to the emotional processing center of your brain, called the amygdala.
- If your amygdala agrees that the signal confirms immediate danger, it passes it along to your brain’s primary control center, called the hypothalamus.
- The hypothalamus lights everything up; Adrenaline releases, your heart rate increases and all that energy causes a heightened state of alertness that’s traditionally been necessary for the survival of our species.
Now you’re alert and still sense danger – time for a shot of that not-so-sweet, sweet stress hormone: Cortisol!
When Hormones Get Involved
Sitting on top of your kidneys are your adrenal glands, responsible for secreting the main stress hormone – called cortisol. When your stress response keeps going, cortisol is one of the primary hormones responsible for the ongoing physiological effects.
At this stage, your mind is firing on all cylinders, extra sharp thanks to the new burst of hormonal energy.
Do you lose your appetite when you’re anxious? That’s because cortisol shuts down down non-essential functions when your body is under attack. This tends to quiet your digestive and even reproductive systems.
Though you may be craving less food, cortisol makes sure the fight or flight response gets plenty of fuel by telling your liver to turn your body’s protein stores into more glucose (sugar) to use in the sprint away from danger. This process is called gluconeogenesis, a word you probably don’t need to remember how to spell unless you’re planning on writing a keto diet guide.
Your cortisol levels will only drop when you’ve accepted that the danger has passed (even if it really passed long before), and this is the cause of the common ‘crash’ after heavy moments of anxiety.
Why does anxiety make me more forgetful?
There are a few different factors when it comes to how our anxiety affects memory.
Consistently high levels of cortisol in the body have been linked to the loss of synapses (think of these like little highways for information) in the prefrontal cortex, which is where your brain stashes short-term memory.
That’s partly because anxiety and stress are exhausting for your body and greatly increase the demand put on many systems. It’s especially taxing for individuals with anxiety disorders (like GAD, among others) who excess stress on a near-daily basis, reflected in research on the comorbidity of these disorders with impaired memory.
Recently, researchers have found that short-term stress fires up molecules that limit some of the brain’s memory and learning processes. Studies like this are key to better understanding of why we have increased difficulty learning and recalling information when under stress.
Reduce stress & improve memory
So the results are in when it comes to the link between anxiety disorders and memory loss, particularly with anxiety disorder as a predictor of future cognitive decline. They go hand-in-hand.
That doesn’t have to read as grim to those of us suffering, though, because there are many avenues to treatment that can even begin at home.
A few things that are completely under your control can contribute to anxiety-associated memory loss. Sleep quality is a common area of suffering when we experience excess stress, and happens to be one that we can self-treat (to an extent! You’re likely not a medical professional and neither am I).
Sleep better, think better
Approximately 70 million people in the United States suffer from sleep disorders, insomnia being the most common among them. Insomnia sufferers experience great difficulty falling and/or staying asleep, and the disorder has a high comorbidity with anxiety. This makes it very likely that improving your sleep will jog your memory.
That’s not to say your symptoms are necessarily reversible, but there’s certainly hope for staying sharper in the future. A big factor in your sleep quality is timing – sleeping at night, when it’s dark out. Sounds pretty obvious, but there’s good research that backs why you should do your best to sleep when it’s dark, not when it’s noon.
Spoiler alert: More hormone talk!
Melatonin is a hormone released by your brain’s pineal gland in the evenings under normal circumstances. Elevated levels of melatonin in your blood will help you wind down and get to sleep, but those levels are only present naturally in darkness.
I personally didn’t realize that until I brought up to my doctor that I’d been using a special feature on my computer and phone to reduce blue screen light in the evenings. It was easier on my eyes, for sure, but didn’t seem to help me fall asleep any faster. She vaguely explained that the brightness mattered and, being a little bit of a jerk, I double-checked to confirm her advice with a quick Google search.
Sure enough, making sure you’re exposed to plenty of light during the day will help keep your circadian rhythm strong.