Many people have questioned, hypothesized, and sought to ascertain if anxiety impairs memory. The answers are almost unanimously yes, but there is fluctuation in the severity, type of memory impairment, and noted lasting effects. In this paper I have compiled research from various sources related to the study of anxiety and how it impairs memory by both type and to what degree throughout multiple stages of life and how that affects overall quality of life and functioning. The research I found oftentimes considered the comorbidity of anxiety with other chronic diseases such as depression and whether or not that came into play with the degree of impairment observed. The research either focused on people ages 9-20 years of age or 18-80 years of age.
Frequently it was noted that the impairments occurred only when symptoms were active and the effects were not sustained at other times which is important to know and communicate to people who might fear their memory will be lastingly compromised if they suffer from anxiety and/or other disorders. The confirmation of the existing link between anxiety and cognitive functioning implores that these findings be properly communicated and understood by teachers, individuals, and care-givers so that appropriate treatment, patience, and concern be shown to ensure quality of life.
Anxiety is something that affects many people and it affects people of all ages. Since it is prevalent in our society I sought to better understand how this condition positively, negatively, or neutrally impairs the essential function of memory in both children, adolescents, and adults. As I began researching I soon realized that many others before me have wondered the same things as I have regarding the association of memory deficits and anxiety.
Since we are children before we are adults and our childhood experiences play a role in our adult understanding of the world I started researching anxiety in children first. What I found is that there has not been as much professional research done on the relationship between anxiety in children and memory deficits. As a teacher I also recognize that the ability to better characterize the neuropsychological correlates of these disorders [can] provide insights for novel therapeutic interventions (2007, p.85) which can help all students reach their full learning potential. One group of researchers wondered if there was connection between parents having anxiety disorders and children having memory deficits and could that constitute premorbid risk factors for childhood anxiety disorders (2007, p.86). It had two aims. The first aim was to see if memory deficits were present in all anxiety disorders or not. Along with that they sought to evaluate whether memory deficits are trait cognitive features that occur even when anxiety disorder in inactive or if they exclusively relate to ongoing disorders. The second aim was to see whether or not parental panic disorder (PD) or parental major depressive disorder (MDD) were independently associated with memory deficits in children.
In the one study mentioned previously verbal and visual memory was assessed. Variables such as IQ and time delays were included to allow for more thorough analysis of results. The results showed that verbal memory did not differ between the children with and without anxiety, but visual memory was affected in children with social phobia, but not generalized anxiety disorder. There is evidence however that test anxiety, when extreme, can impair performance on memory test (2007, p. 91) and this could certainly affect children who take state exams and other assessments that greatly influence success in education. It was concluded that parental psychopathology did not directly influence offspring memory performance and that should come as a relief to parents that suffer from PD or MDD. Although the memory deficits identified were not extreme, it is important that any knowledge be shared with parents and teachers so that they may have awareness of associated complications of anxiety and help their child or student(s) reach their potential without seemingly invisible hurdles inhibiting them.
As I mentioned earlier, anxiety and related effects has been studied quite little in children and the focus has been on anxiety in adults. Psychology Today lists insomnia, tiredness, headaches, muscle tension, irritability, and more as symptoms of anxiety. Clearly people realize that anxiety has a lot of negative and potentially harmful side effects, but being irritable and having trouble remembering things seem to be slightly unequal in significance over the long-term. It has been found that trait anxiety has a negative association with memory performance on tasks such as word recall. Even with depression symptoms, age, gender, and health [ ] all controlled for [as well as] a highly varied sample of people tested (e.g., age range of 18-97, various careers, levels of education, etc.) the negative association remained. However, some people, such as a man named Kizilbash and colleagues (2002) did not find an effect of trait anxiety when he did studies of memory with Vietnam veterans. However, they did find that those with co-morbid anxiety and depression had significantly reduced performance. Unfortunately, this study had relatively few participants who were only trait anxious (n = 47) and far more participants with comorbid anxiety and depression (n = 416) which means that there may not have been enough participants to make the effect of trait anxiety alone significant (p. 15 Dellman ). Although overall literature is not in complete in agreement on the relationship between anxiety and memory there have been many studies that confirm the negative association. One person, a thesis student named Bethany Dellman, conducted thorough research that involved three experiments related to anxiety and memory as well as confidence levels. Dellman reported that it was consistently found that the anxious group had poorer memory, lower confidence and/or greater hesitation when evaluating memory decisions (Dellman 53).
Another paper focused on the effects of anxiety on something called the shifting function of the central executive. According to Miyake et al. (2000), shifting refers to the ability to switch attention flexibly between tasks or mental sets (see also Monsell, 2003). Evidence exists to show that anxiety affects efficiency costs on tasks that require attentional shifting. In an experiment done by previous researchers, participants were instructed to complete math problems with task-shifting and single-task conditions. Participants solved problems that involved simple addition or subtraction as well as problems that involved both.
The experiments conducted by the Dellman uncovered what she claimed was some interesting new evidence (Dellman 54). She discovered and then confirmed that when participants are given time to evaluate responses through confidence ratings or deciding to change an answer, there is not a processing speed deficit in anxious participants for the recognition response (Dellman 54). Her findings that anxious participants are able to make recognition decisions from long-term memory as quickly as their low-anxious peers can provide relief for people who many worry about their anxiety (Dellman 54). However, an increased hesitation was observed in post-memorial evaluation. Knowing that it seems reasonable that anxious individuals may require greater amounts of time when completing tests as they need more time to reflect on their memory classifications (Dellman 54).
College students are young adults that take many tests, and there are plenty of older adults that return to school for further learning or maybe even attempting to change careers or go to higher-level school for the first time. What the Dellman revealed is that while many anxious adults may exhibit normal processing speed for memory responses, perhaps on a test an anxious person would take longer moving from one question to another because they would be evaluating the accuracy of their previous response (Dellman p. 59) and additional time should be allotted to ensure they are provided fair opportunities to show their knowledge. The gathered results from the mental shift experiment indicated that highly anxious individuals were significantly slower to perform the operations in the switching than in the single-task condition, and people with little to no anxiety had response times that were about even across the different types of problems. Since it is clear that anxious people are not as efficient at flexibly shifting mental sets than people with little to no anxiety, it seems logical that these individuals might require additional time to complete certain things both at school and at work as well. It has been found that people with high anxiety are more sensitive to negative appraisal. This knowledge is especially important for parents and teachers to keep in mind when offering constructive criticism to a child or student. Keeping negative comments to a minimum can inadvertently increase memory function by keeping anxiety levels low.
When studying children with and without anxiety disorders IQ also was a significant, positive predictor of visual memory so that need be considered if future research is conducted to be sure it doesn’t skew results. It is known that memory declines with age and it is likely that many older adults fear the potential loss of cognitive capabilities or believe their memory has declined perhaps more that it really has. Complainers frequently attribute memory difficulties to their advanced age and worry about the onset of Alzheimer’s dementia (Foos, Paul W., Educational Gerontology, 03601277, Apr/May97, Vol. 23, Issue 3). Since this anxiety about memory loss could greatly limit enjoyment of final years of life it seems necessary to ascertain in what ways the anxiety can be alleviated. Research done by many others has has yielded A large body of data [confirming] that anxiety is associated with performance deficits in a range of cognitive tasks, including, for example, reading (Calvo & Carreiras, 1993), mathematics (Miller & Bichsel, 2004), analogical reasoning (Tohill & Holyoak, 2000), spatial reasoning (Markham & Darke, 1991), grammatical reasoning (Macleod & Donnellan, 1993), inferential reasoning (Richards, French, Keogh, & Carter, 2000), and on tasks requiring attentional processing (for a review see Eysenck, Derakshan, Santos, & Calvo, 2007).(Effects of trait anxiety and situational stress on attentional shifting are buffered by working memory capacity). Since anxiety has such an influence on quality of cognitive functioning it is imperative that further study be done for future learners of all ages.
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