Taming Anxiety's Effect on Memory
Several years ago, in the midst of an unprecedented level of anxiety in my life, I found myself in an embarrassing situation in the grocery store. No, I didn't fall into the mango stand or have another patron's child try to steal my tampons. But I did do something I'd never done before.
I forgot my PIN. Yep, the one I'd entered hundreds of times before. As I stood over the key display, frozen with panic, the cashier curiously watching my face turn crimson, I slowly placed my debit card back in my wallet and inched out a credit card instead.
"Can we start over?" I whispered. As I drove home that day, I pondered whether I was coming down with the flu or perhaps was experiencing the beginnings of a serious cognitive illness.
A few weeks later, I found myself back at that same grocery store. When it came time to pay, I casually swiped my debit card and entered the PIN with ease. It wasn't until I was loading the groceries into my car when I realized I was back to normal.
The difference? That unprecedented level of anxiety in my life had subsided. More accurately, I had resolved it with a conscious choice. And that conscious, monumental choice seemed to have given me my memory back as well as my life.
My point is that anxiety not only does a number on our physical health - it can impact our memory, too. And when our memory isn't functioning optimally, this affects our work, relationships, and overall quality of life.
The good news is that this relationship between anxiety and memory might be malleable instead of dictated by physiological responses. I gleaned this from a fascinating study by Leininger and Skeel that recently appeared in the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology. In the study, 58 men were randomly assigned to either a control group (where no stress was induced) or an experimental group (where a test-anxiety situation was simulated). Levels of cortisol (a hormone produced in response to stress), perceived anxiety, and memory were tested among all participants. The researchers found a couple of interesting trends:
- The experimental group performed worse on the memory tests.
- Changes in cortisol levels were not significantly associated with changes in memory performance.
- As perceived anxiety levels increased, memory performance decreased.
Interesting how our perceived levels of anxiety seem to matter more than the amount of cortisol being churned out by our bodies, isn't it? I think this is good news. It means that even when our bodies are going haywire due to stress, we can pay attention to how we think we are doing and catch ourselves when we perceive we are more anxious than we really need to be.
I'm not suggesting that we live in denial of the stress in our lives. Instead, I'm suggesting that a change in perspective can do wonders for our emotional well-being. We can acknowledge that something in our lives is stressful (sometimes, very stressful), but we can also shift our thinking so that the problem is perceived as manageable. We can identify what aspects of the problem we can control. And we can make choices to address the problem so that its effects are less toxic.
This strategy is also very much about awareness. Through conscious awareness of our emotional state, we can pinpoint those times when we feel anxious and take steps to calm ourselves. This may entail meditation, physical exercise, journaling, or some restructuring of our thinking patterns. By lowering our perceived levels of anxiety, we may be able to keep our memory running smoothly and our day-to-day tasks more manageable - tasks like remembering the all-important PIN.
Leininger, S., & Skeel, R. (2012). Cortisol and self-report measures of anxiety as predictors of neuropsychological performance. Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, 27(3), 318-328.