© 2018 by Janelle E. Letzen, PhD

Anxiety and Cognition
How do anxiety and cognition interact?
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Let's walk through the model below (adapted from [1]) 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?

Sushi Science | Janelle Letzen | Anxiety

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. 


[1] Maloney, E. A., Sattizahn, J. R., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). Anxiety and cognition. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science, 5(4), 403-411.

[2] Braver, T. S. (2012). The variable nature of cognitive control: a dual mechanisms framework. Trends in cognitive sciences, 16(2), 106-113.

[3] Kaltner, S., & Jansen, P. (2014). Emotion and affect in mental imagery: do fear and anxiety manipulate mental rotation performance?. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 792.

[4] Moran, T. P. (2016). Anxiety and working memory capacity: A meta-analysis and narrative review. Psychological Bulletin, 142(8), 831.

[5] Owens, M., Stevenson, J., Hadwin, J. A., & Norgate, R. (2014). When does anxiety help or hinder cognitive test performance? The role of working memory capacity. British Journal of Psychology, 105(1), 92-101.

[6] Brady, S. T., Hard, B. M., & Gross, J. J. (2017). Reappraising test anxiety increases academic performance of first-year college students.

[7] Koric, L., Volle, E., Seassau, M., Bernard, F. A., Mancini, J., Dubois, B., ... & Levy, R. (2012). How cognitive performance‐induced stress can influence right VLPFC activation: an fMRI study in healthy subjects and in patients with social phobia. Human Brain Mapping, 33(8), 1973-1986.

[8] Goodman, R. N., Rietschel, J. C., Lo, L. C., Costanzo, M. E., & Hatfield, B. D. (2013). Stress, emotion regulation and cognitive performance: The predictive contributions of trait and state relative frontal EEG alpha asymmetry. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 87(2), 115-123.

[9] Krugers, H. J., Karst, H., & Joels, M. (2012). Interactions between noradrenaline and corticosteroids in the brain: from electrical activity to cognitive performance. Frontiers in Cellular Neuroscience, 6, 15.