Mental Health and Memory: How Depression and Anxiety Impact Your Memory Function and What You Can Do to Manage It


In general, some of us have better memory function than others, and a lot of us are concerned about improving our memory. There are many factors that play into how well we remember things, especially our mental health. When it comes to depression and anxiety, individuals who suffer from these conditions will often also endure some form of poor memory function. 

Interestingly enough, depression and anxiety can actually have differing effects on memory, and of course it can also differ from person to person. In terms of our different types of memory like short-term, long-term, and working memory for example, our mental health can have either specific or more broad impacts on memory function. Understanding how your mental health can impact your memory is important in learning how to improve your well-being, and fortunately there are simple things that you can do on your own to benefit your memory.

How Does Depression Impact Memory?

It is thought that depression mainly has its negative effect on your short-term memory and prospective memory, while other types of memory don’t suffer. 

In general, symptoms of depression can include trouble focusing on tasks, as well as confusion and forgetfulness. More in-depth research has shown that depression is linked to memory loss, specifically when looking at our short-term memory. Research has shown that depressed individuals have a difficult time identifying objects that they were presented with that they had just viewed previously. 

In addition, it has been shown that people who suffer from depression can also have a hard time remembering the finer details of events. So the broader memory of the event that occurred will be there, but more specific occurrences within that event will be more difficult to recall. Depression can also weaken a person’s prospective memory. Prospective memory involves planning and acknowledging something that you will do in the near future, such as picking up a prescription or doing your laundry. When you are depressed, you can actually become a lot more forgetful of these types of tasks and your ability to carry out prospective memories can suffer. 

Interestingly enough, depressed individuals do not necessarily have trouble recalling “bad” memories. Based on recent research, it appears that non-depressed individuals generally have an easier time remembering positive events compared to negative ones, whereas individuals who suffer from depression actually tend to have an easier time remembering the negative memories that they’ve experienced. 

Scientists have looked closer at brain regions that may be associated with these conditions, and it is thought that the hippocampus, an area of the brain dealing with learning and memory, is actually smaller in those who are depressed. Though this does not necessarily provide the one and only reason as to why memory function is poorer in depressed individuals, it suggests just one factor that explains why depression can have an impact on how well you remember certain things. 

A woman stands with her hand on her head, appearing to suffer from depression or anxiety, which can have an effect on your memory.
It is thought that rather than affecting your long-term memory or procedural memory, depression mainly has an impact on your short-term memory and prospective memory. Remembering things for a short period of time or remembering to complete a task that you had planned to do in the near future can be difficult to accomplish if you suffer from depression. 

How Does Anxiety Impact Memory? 

Anxiety is linked to a suffering working memory and can also have an impact on emotionally-valenced memories. 

Research has consistently demonstrated that people who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience working memory loss. Our working memory is essentially important for helping us hold details in our minds while we actively complete a task or work on whatever we are keeping in mind at that time. It is useful in our abilities to actively solve problems as well as manage the various bits of information that we might be presented with at the current time. 

It is thought that the body’s stress response, which occurs as a result of anxiety, increases electrical activity in the brain as well as the release of adrenaline in response to fear or threats. However, this essentially expends the body’s resources, making other functions such as memory actually suffer. 

Studies have shown that anxiety and worry can hinder your working memory, causing you to make more mistakes and be more forgetful. Here are just a few examples of experiences that anxious individuals might encounter as a result of hindered working memory function:

  • Forgetting where you parked in a parking lot
  • Repeating yourself because you have forgotten if you’ve said it already
  • Difficulty recalling directions
  • Losing everyday items you keep with you such as your keys or phone
  • Forgetting what you came to the store to purchase

Another interesting effect that anxiety has been shown to have on memory is that higher levels of anxiety are linked to remembering things that are specifically linked to emotional experiences. Research has observed that anxious individuals have an easier time recalling memories that are emotionally-tinted

A man sits attempting to solve a problem, which utilizes his working memory.
Anxiety can have a major impact on our working memory. Working memory is crucial for our problem-solving abilities, so when our working memory suffers, we often develop issues in our work or daily life. 

What Can I Do To Improve My Memory Function?

There are plenty of ways that you can improve your memory if you feel that you are suffering from some form of memory loss.  

Poor memory can be extremely frustrating and can certainly affect many aspects of your life in a negative way. Luckily, there are methods that you can use in order to improve your memory function. Here are some suggestions that encompass a variety of strategies that you can try: 

  • Decrease sugar in your diet. It has been shown that eating too much added sugar can actually be linked to cognitive decline, which includes how well your memory functions. Particularly when it comes to our short-term memory, research has demonstrated that high-sugar diets can lead to memory loss. So, trying to reduce your sugar intake will not only benefit your overall physical health, but it can have a more specific effect on your memory function.  
  • Meditation. If you’ve read our other blog posts, you’ve probably seen that meditation is a great strategy for managing a lot of health problems in your life, both physical and mental. Not only is it a relaxing activity, but it has been shown to reduce pain, stress, and improve your overall well-being in a variety of ways. Studies have shown that meditation can actually increase gray matter in the brain (which contains neuron cell bodies), a portion of brain matter that decreases with age and thus negatively impacts memory function.   
  • Vitamins and supplements. Fish oil is actually one supplement that has been shown to lower the risk of conditions such as heart disease and inflammation, as well as slow declining mental function. Specifically in older people, the beneficial fatty acids that these supplements contain have been shown to possibly improve memory. Low levels of vitamin D have also been associated with poorer memory function, so ensuring that your body’s levels of vitamin D are normal is also an important thing to consider. 
  • Managing your sleep routine. How well you are sleeping is also a factor that plays into many parts of your physical and mental health. There is endless research out there that investigates all of the links between sleep and memory consolidation as well as memory function. Sleep deprivation can have many negative effects on your memory. Focusing on having a better sleep routine and allowing yourself to sleep enough is extremely important for your memory and will ultimately contribute to better cognitive function overall. 
  • Brain games and exercises. Any types of exercises that involve word recall or require you to memorize things can be a fun way to train your brain and improve memory. There are many different apps that you can install on your phone, online programs, as well as physical games that you can purchase at the store or online that can assist you in exercising your memory. One of many great ways to improve memory is through the use of top down processing. It involves using higher-level cognitive processes to help encode and store information in memory. This type of processing can help improve your ability to remember information by making it more meaningful, helps you better organize and store information, and  retrieve information from memory more effectively. All of these benefits can lead to improved memory performance.
  • Physical exercise. Exercising is another activity that studies have observed all ages benefitting from. In general, regular exercise is great for your physical and mental health, and has been associated with improved cognitive function. It even has been shown to decrease the risk of dementia later on in life.  
On a table is a bottle of fish oil capsules, which are good supplements to take for managing how your memory functions.
A simple way to improve your memory is by adding certain vitamins and supplements to your diet. Specifically, supplements like fish oil that include beneficial fatty acids as well as vitamin D are two that have been associated with memory function. 

The bottom line is that your mental health can absolutely have an impact on your memory function, and there is no reason to panic. This is both a common and manageable symptom of conditions like depression and anxiety. Understanding how your memory function is affected is important to your well-being, and there are fortunately a variety of ways that you can work to improve your memory. 

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