Generalized Anxiety Disorder Can Affect Memory
Thu, April 22, 2021

Generalized Anxiety Disorder Can Affect Memory

Most of us experience occasional anxiety, which is a normal part of life. However, not everyone feels the same. People suffering from anxiety disorders usually have excessive, intense, and persistent worry and fear about daily situations. These also involve repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety, which are difficult to control. In some cases, feeling extremely anxious about a lot of things can get too tiring and get out of proportion.

Anxiety Hub, an online site where readers can learn about anxiety and connect with other people, reported that anxiety disorders are the most common mental disorders across the world with 2.4% to 18.2% of people having this kind of mental disorder at a specific point in time. Coming in next are mood disorders (0.8% to 9.6%), substance disorders (0.1% to 6.4%), and impulse control disorders (0% to 6.8%). It was also reported that specific phobias are the most common anxiety disorder for US adults and children at 12.5% and 15.1%, respectively. This is followed by social phobia (12.1% and 5.5%), generalized anxiety disorder (5.7% and 1%), and panic disorder (4.7% and 2.3%). 

Generally, people suffering from anxiety disorders can feel nervous, restless, or tense, have a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom, have an increased heart rate, breathe rapidly (hyperventilation), sweat profusely, tremble, feel weak or tired, have trouble concentrating or thinking about anything other than the present worry, having trouble sleeping, and others. Among all types of anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can impact not only a person’s daily routine but also their memories.

Understanding Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Alongside separation anxiety and social anxiety disorders, GAD is one of the most common psychiatric issues in young people. This mental disorder is characterized by persistent and excessive worry about several different things. Individuals suffering from GAD usually anticipate disaster and may be overly concerned about money, health, family, work, or other issues. They also find it extremely difficult to control their worry. 

Compared with other mental health issues that can make people occasionally feel anxious, people with GAD worry about several different topics over a long period. In some cases, they may not be able to identify the source of their worry. According to Verywell Mind, a trusted and compassionate online resource that provides the guidance people need to improve their mental health and find balance, GAD is associated with multiple physical or cognitive symptoms. This includes restlessness or edginess, fatigue, poor concentration, irritability, muscle tension or soreness, and impaired sleep. 

Just like other mental health disorders, GAD is caused by several factors including biological and environmental. It is thought to result from a "perfect storm" of environmental stressors that occur in an individual with a genetic predisposition for anxiety. Fortunately, there are different treatments for GAD such as medications and therapies. Another good news is that people suffering from this anxiety disorder can be treated and can live a normal life. 

A recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Toronto reported that 72% of the participants with a history of GAD have been free of the mental health condition for at least one year. According to Technology Networks, an internationally recognized publisher that provides access to the latest scientific news, products, research, videos, and posters, 60% had no other mental illness or addiction issues, such as suicidal thoughts, substance dependence, a major depressive disorder or a bipolar disorder in the past year. Meanwhile, 40% were in a state of excellent mental health. 

“We were so encouraged to learn that even among those whose anxiety disorders had lasted a decade or longer, half had been in remission from GAD for the past year and one-quarter had achieved excellent mental health and well-being. This research provides a very hopeful message for individuals struggling with anxiety, their families, and health professionals. Our findings suggest that full recovery is possible, even among those who have suffered for many years with the disorder,” said Esme Fuller-Thomson, lead author of the study. 

GAD and Your Memory

Previous studies have proved that depression and anxiety can lead to memory loss due to the “exhausting” frequency with which anxiety activates the brain’s stress response. Both of these mental health issues are also linked with sleep interruptions that can alter existing memory issues. This is because low-quality sleep impacts the brain’s ability to focus on absorbing and recalling information. Thus, people suffering from GAD can cause problems, leaving people operating below their normal level of memory functioning.

Studies have consistently shown that working memory capacity suffers when people experience anxiety. Thus, the ability to use complex problem-solving strategies and decision-making skills of people with GAD or those with chronic high levels of worry may be compromised. According to an article by River University, memory loss can happen when fear or anxiety is excessive or persists beyond developmentally appropriate periods. A study published in the International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry had also revealed that anxiety disorder is interrelated and inseparable with loss of memory. 

Experts explained that our brain produces a stress response, which is known as the fight-or-flight response, whenever we are feeling anxious. This increases levels of adrenaline and cortisol. However, if this process happens too frequently, it can result in memory loss because our brains become too exhausted. 

“Anxiety can cause memory loss because it is an incredibly unpleasant emotion, and memory loss allows us to put off dealing with that negative event in an attempt to limit future instances of anxiety. Often, specific memories that caused us anxiety are specifically ‘lost’ as a strategic coping mechanism. This coping skill is very common when dealing with those who have struggled with trauma,” New York-based licensed mental health counselor Ramon Lantigua Jr. explained. 

Additionally, people suffering from anxiety disorders like GAD have greater difficulty remembering childhood attachment experiences than non-anxious counterparts. Experts explained that some adult anxiety may be rooted in childhood experiences that leave a child uncertain. Excessive worrying is also associated with substantial cognitive avoidance, which prevents the processing of disturbing emotional material.

Psychotherapist and licensed mental health counselor Liz Benamo stated that while treating GAD can be equally exhausting as the anxiety-induced memory loss itself, people need to recognize that the loss and feeling that occurs can be beneficial to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

“We might try really hard to remember or be critical and tough on ourselves, and it’s important to recognize that doing so only further exacerbates the pain and loss. If we practice letting it be, it’s more likely that we will remember and return to what we’ve lost,” Benamo said.

Equally important is for people suffering from anxiety disorders to have the full support of friends and family.