Anxiety and Cognition
How do anxiety and cognition interact?
Let's walk through the model below (adapted from ) as you picture this scenario: You're about to take a test for a class that's challenged you all semester. You've poured hours into studying. Sitting to take the exam, you feel your heart pound and muscles tighten (i.e., physical responses; activation of the fight-or-flight response). You associate these physical responses with worries about the test (i.e., assign meaning to arousal). You have unhelpful thoughts about your abilities (e.g., "I feel nervous because I'm bad at this subject", "I'm going to fail"). Your physical responses grow stronger. The exam is placed in front of you, and you read the first question. Suddenly, you feel like your memory for all of the information you studied is gone. You’re having trouble thinking through the question. Why is this happening?
For some people, stress/anxiety negatively impact cognitive control, or your ability to direct your attention and cognitive resources to meet a goal (like reason through exam questions).
The likelihood that stress/anxiety hurts cognitive control depends on several factors, including your general levels of anxiety (i.e., do you tend to worry about a variety of things?), your working memory capacity (i.e., ability to mentally hold and manipulate information), and your appraisal of the anxiety you feel (like the unhelpful thoughts in the example above).
For people with higher general anxiety, lower working memory capacity, and unhelpful appraisal, cognitive performance tends to worsen under stressful situations.
Some potential neurobiological reasons for these findings include how the fight-or-flight response impacts prefrontal cortex activity and how corticosteroid hormones affect AMPA receptor function in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex.
The good news is that strategies can help manage how stress impacts cognitive performance. Therapies like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teach ways to reduce both the physical responses under stress and the unhelpful appraisal of that fight-or-flight response.
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