Is your memory shot? You could blame these two mental health factors
When I was in the midst of an intense bout of anxiety and depression a few years ago, I ended up completing a work assignment that I wasn’t supposed to do because I completely forgot a work conversation I had with a coworker. Eek! When my colleague ultimately confronted me about it, I was at a loss for words.
Explaining that I had simply forgotten our conversation because I was going through a lot at the time felt uncomfortable, amiss, and, frankly, irrelevant. But now, I realize that what I was experiencing at that time was my mental illness taking a toll and affecting some of my basic cognitive functions. And while my lack of self-awareness and compassion prevented me from understanding what was happening before, I’m much more conscious of the impact these symptoms have had on me as I’m recently navigating a similar period of time, where I’m having a hard time remembering things.
How anxiety and depression affect your memory
According to Elizabeth Beecroft, LMSW, a therapist based in New York, anxiety, depression, and memory loss are all distinctly connected.
“Both depression and anxiety have been linked to memory problems such as forgetfulness and confusion. These mental health issues can also make it hard to focus on work, decision making, or thinking clearly," she says.
While depression and anxiety can impair memory, Dr. Amanda Tinkelman, a psychiatrist working at Brooklyn Minds, a mental health practice in Brooklyn, New York, says there are likely multiple reasons why this happens. “When someone is suffering from depression, or certain anxiety disorders (such as PTSD), the brain appears to have difficulty encoding or registering new information into memory,” she says. This is known as a “primary encoding deficit.”
Going one step further, Beecroft says that depression is linked to short-term memory loss while anxiety is linked to more long-term memory loss. “Studies have suggested that people diagnosed with depression may experience diminished memory as a result of their symptoms of depression,” she says.
Consider some of the symptoms of depression, such as loss of energy, fatigue, and lack of motivation. Beecroft says all of these things play a role in how our brain soaks up and store this information in order to create new memories. Moreover, studies have suggested that people who are diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), like me, or panic disorders, can actually have a more difficult time recalling memories from their childhood. This makes a lot of sense to me since I recall very little from my upbringing—I’ve always wondered why, but the connection makes more sense now. But it’s not just GAD that affects one’s memory. Acute stress can also alter it as well.
“Acute stress can actually disrupt the way our brains collect memories,” Beecroft says. Because anxiety is a difficult emotion to cope with and an unpleasant emotion to feel, it makes sense that memory loss is connected.
If we aren’t storing memories of certain events, Beecroft explains that we won’t be triggered to feel those emotions. Therefore, we’re subconsciously “coping” to prevent ourselves from feeling even more anxious.
When people are depressed, Tinkelman says it’s harder to mount the mental energy to stay focused on a task, which can impair one’s primary encoding. In fact, in older people, depression can look surprisingly like dementia in this way.
“If you ask an older depressed person with what appears to be memory deficits questions, such as ‘Who was the President before the current one? And who before that, and who before that,’ they may be more likely to give an answer [like] ‘I don't know’ or [give] up too quickly on the task, appearing as if they do not know the answer when, in fact, they cannot adequately participate, she says.
In contrast, a person with dementia but without depression is more likely to attempt an answer, even though it’s incorrect. “When an older person appears to have dementia, but, in fact, their apparent memory problems are due to depression, we call this ‘pseudodementia.’ These apparent memory impairments improve as their depression improves,” she adds.
How anxiety and depression affect memory consolidation
Additionally, Tinkelman says there are challenges to memory consolidation after a new memory is encoded. “While encoding new memories needs mental effort, consolidation mostly happens automatically, often during sleep,” she says. This hits close to home for me, too, since my anxiety and depression have also impacted my sleep at times. Tinkelman says that mood disorders associated with sleep disruption may impair memory because our brains consolidate and store memories during sleep.
“Mood disorders, like depression or anxiety, alter sleep architecture," says Tinkelman. "For example, in depression, there is less of a delay before REM sleep, and much of the communication between the parts of the brain that consolidate memories happens during slow-wave, non-REM sleep, which there is less of."
Basically, when we experience less non-REM sleep during depression episodes, our memory can be even more impaired.
How to combat memory loss if you have depression or anxiety
So what should you do if you notice your anxiety and/or depression are taking a toll on your memory? “When you’re experiencing high levels of depression or anxiety it is always beneficial to seek professional help [if it fits within your budget],” says Beecroft. This may include seeing a therapist who specializes in anxiety and depression on a weekly basis and talking to a psychiatrist about exploring medication if this something you’re interested in exploring. “For some people, medication may also be a good option as this could help play a role in how stress affects you on a day-to-day basis,” adds Beecroft.
While the connection between anxiety, depression, and memory loss is not widely spoken about, Beecroft believes it’s important to remember that all of these things are related to the way our brain functions.
"If we’re not at our best emotionally because we might be struggling with symptoms of depression or anxiety, then that also plays a role in the functioning of our brains," she says.
And if our brain has to pull more weight because our cognitive functions are being affected by depression and anxiety, then there’s a possibility that it will not be able to pull as much weight in other areas, such as encoding memory. Knowing this now, I feel more compassion towards myself. And if you’re going through something similar, I hope this has helped you, too.
If you or someone you care about is struggling and experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. You can also chat with a counselor online here. All services are free and available 24/7.