When I was a kid, I had a tendency to remember obscure trivia and unimportant information. I could basically quote half of the movies I liked to watch over and over again, and I loved to spout meaningless trivia that I had picked up from here or there. But when it came to my day-to-day, short-term memory, I always struggled to a frustrating degree. To this day, I’ve lost my wallet more times than I can count, and I am pretty much the worst at keeping track of payments and dates. I could easily tell you what happened 4 books ago in the series I’m reading, but I would forget to return the book to the library until it was two months overdue.
I was able to mostly avoid too many issues stemming from my memory in school. As long as I remembered to do the homework, I found testing to be pretty straightforward – it was basically just repeating trivia, which I had never had an issue with. I might forget my coat at school or on the bus, sure, but there are never any serious consequences for such oversights. As an adult, however, this inability to focus on details and daily tasks has become a real problem for me. What used to be an embarrassing quirk has become an inconvenience, affecting my work, my responsibilities, my daily life.
When I learned that I suffered from Generalized Anxiety Disorder, which affects over 3 million Americans, I initially did not make the connection between my struggles with anxiety and my short-term memory issues. It was only with research that I began to realize how our mental states, and our general behavioral health, can drastically affect our memory.
There has been a great deal of research delving into how mental health affects memory. As explained by William Meek of VeryWellMind, “Research dating back to the 1970s has shown that working memory and anxiety to be related. Studies have consistently shown that when people experience anxiety, particularly when worry is at high levels, a trademark of GAD, working memory capacity suffers”. Most people would agree that, under high-pressure circumstances, their performance in tasks and ability to remember small details is impaired, and while this doesn’t necessarily account for all of one’s memory issues, it most certainly can help explain how individuals suffering from severe anxiety often forget to take care of tasks and pay attention to details.
But it doesn’t just go one way – there are certain tasks and responsibilities that I tend to overlook or have trouble keeping track of, and the fact that I associate them with anxiety and negative results often contributes to my tendency to, on a subconscious level, skim them over or even avoid them entirely. A study at Washington University suggested that “a major function of our memory is to help us retrieve relevant experiences and relate them to what is happening in the current environment.” We tend to draw from our past experiences to address our current ones, and when our brains make connections between, say, making a phone call and feelings of anxiety and discomfort, this can make phone-call-mountains out of phone-call-molehills, so to speak, turning what should be simple tasks into nearly insurmountable ones, which we either avoid focusing on or handle incorrectly. The fact that anxiety and other mental health issues can contribute to struggles with detail management and pattern recognition in work only serves to make these associations stronger.
If you’ve found yourself continuously struggling to effectively remember short-term tasks and details, and forming negative associations with tasks in ways that are affecting your ability to live your life, don’t be afraid to reach out and see what day-to-day exercises and detail management strategies you can employ – since I realized the patterns I have been forming, I have been making an effort to more consciously focus on the small tasks in front of me, rather than simple big-picture thinking, and as a result my anxiety and issues of responsibility have been decreasing. I’ll always be that guy who remembers meaningless trivia, but at least now I also remember to answer my business emails.
“How Memories Shape Ideas about Our Present and Future.” Futurity, 21 Aug. 2018, www.futurity.org/memories-perception-1823582/.
Meek, William, and Lyndsey Garbi. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder Can Negatively Impact Your Memory.” VeryWell Mind, Dotdash, www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-and-memory-1393133.