Lane, 22, has been dealing with anxiety-induced memory loss for as long as they can remember. They describe the sensation as a general fogginess around events in the past, which is often accompanied by an inability to think clearly. And when their memories are more painful or attached to trauma — such as Lane’s confusion around their transgender identity as a child — it becomes even harder for them to recall things clearly.
“I have pretty severe anxiety and spend hours every day too anxious to function,” they tell Allure. “I have the hardest time remembering the past or forming memories when I am anxious.”
While Lane’s experiences may sound extreme, they are actually quite common among people with generalized anxiety disorder. In fact, many others who suffer from extreme anxiety have also lost memories — it can be a coping mechanism to forget things that were traumatic in order to prevent further instances of anxiety or emotional harm.
Why does severe anxiety cause memory loss?
Extensive research demonstrates various ways that anxiety and memory loss are linked, and studies show that people with generalized anxiety and/or panic disorders have greater difficulty remembering experiences from their childhood than their non-anxious counterparts. It’s clear that acute stress can disrupt the process of collecting memories.
"For about three years, I could not remember anything about my childhood."
New York–based licensed mental health counselor Ramon Lantigua Jr. further explains this connection to Allure. “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,” he says. “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.”
Rachel, 21, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, confirmed that they tend to forget specific memories that were traumatic or caused them great anxiety. “I have difficulty remembering the order of events that are related to traumatic memories,” they say. “I may remember what happened but not how it happened. And for about three years, I could not remember anything about my childhood."
Our brain chemistry points to why high levels of anxiety can cause people to lose memories. When we are feeling anxious, the brain produces a stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response. This increases levels of adrenaline and cortisol. If this process happens too frequently, our brains can become exhausted — that’s when memory loss starts to occur. For the chronically anxious person, these chemical processes can happen every day, even several times a day, meaning the probability of losing memories increases.
How is this memory loss experienced?
Anxiety-induced memory loss can take many different forms. Rachel, 26, describes her memory loss as a general fog when she attempts to recall certain events from her past, as well as feeling foggy on days when she’s experiencing high anxiety.
“This past weekend, I spent my entire Sunday in bed doing absolutely nothing without realizing it because the weekend was so rough,” she recalls. “It’s like the panic attack is one thing, but then the recovery throws me into a fog.”
Psychotherapist and licensed mental health counselor Liz Benamo, who is based in New York City, confirms that often the recovery can be just as emotionally taxing as the anxiety-induced memory loss itself. “It can feel disorienting and scary not to remember, so recognizing the loss and feeling what follows is critical to our physical, mental, and emotional well-being,” Benamo explains. “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.”
While some people, like Rachel, experience a general fogginess because of their anxiety, others can generally remember certain moments of the past but might have trouble recalling the specifics. “What I’ll usually forget is the most important detail of the memory, like the names of pivotal people involved or points of logic that give the story credibility,” says Patrice, 22. “My memory of the feelings I have are vivid even if recovering the origin is tricky.”
Anxiety-induced memory loss can often be a dangerous cycle. Being anxious can cause people to have issues remembering things — whether it be a specific event from the past or a seemingly-minute detail, like where you parked your car — and in turn, this forgetfulness can often cause more anxiety. However, these memories are usually not lost for good, and they can often be restored with the correct treatment.
Can these memories be recovered?
Someone with generalized anxiety disorder may worry that their memories are gone for good. However, that’s not necessarily the case, and it’s often true that if the anxiety is treated, the memories may resurface.
“At times, the negative memory might not even be forgotten completely,” Lantigua Jr. confirms. “As a way of coping, years later the negative memory might be remembered as less damaging and not as severe in a way to make peace with something in one’s life that cannot be changed.”
Negative memories may not even be forgotten completely.
These memories can be retrieved in a number of ways. For some, memories lost due to anxiety will resurface over time once the anxiety around that specific event or time period has decreased. For others, however, this process is not as simple. Samantha, 21, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety six years ago and has had issues with her memory ever since. Several years ago, after experiencing a personal trauma, she became too anxious to remember anything about her day-to-day life, including who she spoke to, when she woke up, or whether she had eaten. Through therapy, however, Samantha is slowly beginning to recover her memories.
“Through therapy — and more specifically, exposure work — I have slowly begun the process of recovering emotions that I felt during the time of the trauma as well as ones that have appeared in the wake of the trauma,” she says. “While it is painful, it is also cathartic to finally feel and recover not only my emotions, but the fragmented pieces of who I was before the trauma.”
When (and how) should someone seek help for lost memories?
While memory loss is a rather common coping mechanism for events from one’s past that were traumatic, it can also be worrying, inconvenient, and hard on the psyche. For this reason, many anxious people turn to therapy to recover lost memories and to treat the root of the problem — the anxiety itself.
“I recommend that people seek professional help when they notice recurring high levels of anxiety,” Benamo tells Allure. “Seeking help then can act as a preventive measure and tool. If not at this point, then seek help when you notice losing memories.”
For many chronically anxious people, speaking with a therapist or licensed mental health professional is not only a productive way to regain lost memories, but an important tool to heal from past trauma and treat the anxiety that they face on a daily basis.
“Therapy has been an incredibly helpful resource for me in my recovery,” says Samantha. “I deeply encourage anyone who has experienced anxiety, trauma, or adversity of any kind to seek out the help they need.”
If you are experiencing memory loss due to acute anxiety, there are resources available to you. Reaching out to a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders can be an excellent way to learn how to best treat your anxiety. They can help you talk through your anxiety and memory loss, develop coping skills so that you know how to deal with these issues in the future, and in some cases even prescribe you medication so that stress does not impact you as greatly on a day to day basis. While anxiety-induced memory loss can be scary, you shouldn’t have to deal with it alone.
Read more stories about mental health:
- Therapy Is Important, Even If You're Happy
- The Reality of Navigating the Mental Health System as a Black Woman
- 9 Things You Should Know About Borderline Personality Disorder
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Originally Appeared on Allure