Mental Health

Can anxiety and depression actually affect your memory? We asked an expert to explain

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Lauren Geall
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Ever wondered why your memory gets hazy when you’re struggling with anxiety or depression? Read this.

There’s nothing quite like a random viral tweet to get you rethinking everything you thought you knew, right? Last week, during an innocent morning scroll, such a tweet popped up on my timeline – and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

“Why does no one talk about how depression and anxiety can cause major memory loss?” the tweet, by stand-up comedian and writer Abby Govindan, read.  

While, upon further research, it became clear that this tweet is part of a running joke on Twitter about the fact that a lot of people are talking about it (Govindan has posted this tweet multiple times over the last year, and it’s gone viral every time), it still wasn’t something I – and a lot of people, going off the thousands of responses to the tweet – had ever really considered.

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But when I took a moment to think about those times when my anxiety and OCD were particularly bad, I was struck by the fact that – yes, I do struggle to remember some stuff. A lot of things, in fact. Of course, I can remember how bad my anxiety was, and how it felt to be wired 24/7 – I’m pretty sure those moments will be imprinted on my brain forever – but when it comes to the day-to-day, life-y moments from ‘back then,’ I often draw a blank.

After speaking to my friends, family and colleagues about this, I realised I wasn’t the only one whose mental health had affected their memories. So, why does this happen? And if so, is there anything we can do about it? 

How and why do anxiety and depression affect memory?  

A woman struggling with her memory
How and why do anxiety and depression affect memory?

Numerous studies have shown a clear link between depression and anxiety and memory impairment – but what is it about these mental health conditions that affects the ‘memory’ part of the brain?

According to Dr Krista Jordan, a clinical psychologist and therapist at Choosing Therapy, there are many reasons why this is the case, one of which being the impact cortisol – the stress hormone which tends to exist at higher levels in people with anxiety and depression – can have on the retention of memories.

“While mild to moderate levels of stress can actually improve memory and other cognitive functions by providing motivation, high levels of stress releases chemicals in the brain that disrupt memory formation,” she explains.  

“When stress chemicals like cortisol and corticotropin-releasing hormone are high in the brain it prevents the brain’s memory centre, the hippocampus, from functioning properly. If memories cannot be integrated by the hippocampus, they never make it into long-term storage and fade very quickly.” 

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On top of this, there are condition-specific reasons why anxiety and depression can affect memory. For example, Dr Jordan points out, people with anxiety may struggle to recall events because they’re distracted by the anxious thoughts going around in their brain.

And when it comes to depression, the impact the condition can have on brain function in general can indirectly impact memory, too.

“Brain imaging studies have shown that depressed patients’ brains under-function in areas we associate with attention, concentration, memory, planning, problem-solving and motivation,” Dr Jordan explains. “One possible cause for the memory problems in depressed people is also that the hippocampus, which is the structure we rely on for memory, is often smaller in those with the condition.” 

Is there anything you can do about anxiety and depression-related memory loss?

While it may not be possible to retrieve memories that weren’t stored in the first place due to distraction, for example, the impact anxiety and depression has on memory function itself is usually reversible, Dr Jordan says.

“The impact of anxiety and depression on memory seems to be reversible, at least if the episodes don’t go on for too long without treatment,” she explains.

“Not treating anxiety or depressive disorders can, over years, lead to many negative health outcomes. So, it’s important to seek treatment if you are struggling with either.” 

While it’s interesting to learn about the ways in which anxiety and depression can impair memory, it’s also comforting to know that any impact on the brain’s ability to function, while scary, is most likely reversible.

If memory problems are affecting your day-to-day life, please seek help from your GP.

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on the mental health charity Mind’s website and NHS Every Mind Matters or access the NHS’ guide to local mental health helplines and organisations here.

If you are struggling, you can also ask your GP for a referral to NHS Talking Therapies, or you can self-refer.

You can also call the Samaritans in the UK on 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org for confidential support.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and work. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time.