How Anxiety Affects Memory
Have you ever sat down to take a test and suddenly felt like your mind just went completely blank? Like, you couldn’t remember any of the things you’d spent hours studying? Well, this may be due to test anxiety. Research shows that there is a link between your memory and how relaxed you are. The more you feel stressed out or anxious, the more your mind struggles to access what is called “working memory”.
Dr. Ju Hyun Lee says that “research on test anxiety and working memory suggests that performance deficits caused by test anxiety can be explained by the extent to which individuals are able to use their working memory capacity.”
Now, working memory is the part of short-term memory that processes most of our language and some of our visual memories. Working memory is vital for processing information and for guidance in decisions and behaviors. So, when you take a test, most of the time, your brain is using working memory to respond to the questions you’re being asked. If you are taking a test, and you are especially nervous, your working memory doesn’t function at full capacity.
Test anxiety can look different in different people. You may experience a hard time catching your breath, accelerated heart rate, sweaty palms, headache, nausea, or feelings of anger or helplessness. You may also be experiencing more cognitive side effects like thinking negative thoughts and having internal self-deprecating dialogue in your mind. Well, this actually limits cognitive processing. It’s like trying to take a test while having a conversation with some jerk who won’t stop yelling at you about how bad you are going to do on the test, or like trying to take a test with “I’m Poppy” turned all the way up in your head and no way to turn it off.
Do you guys remember when everyone thought that multitasking was a thing? But then neuroscience research told us that our brains aren’t actually doing tasks simultaneously, they are just switching tasks rather quickly.
Well, that is what is going on in our brains when we are having these negative thoughts and internal dialogue in our minds (or even if you are experiencing the more physical symptoms). Our focus is switched from recalling learned information and onto these internal thoughts, physical, or emotional reactions.
Working memory is actually what helps us to focus our attention on tasks and ignore distractions, but stress impairs that working memory, allowing our minds to drift to the negative thoughts going on in our head.
So the question then becomes “how do we eliminate the stress that creeps into our minds?”
See you next time!