- Anxiety interferes with the processing of verbal information in working memory.
- To complete a task, a child with anxiety may take longer or require more concentration and effort than their peers.
- Tips for boosting memory skills in children include practicing until the performance is automated and snacking on foods high in flavonoids.
There is a continuum for anxiety levels: on one end there is healthy anxiety that helps the child succeed in daily tasks; and on the other end is an unhealthy anxiety that can become consuming. The threshold is determined in part on the effect it has on daily activities. A child with an anxiety disorder has greater difficulty focusing on tasks in class, as well as in daily life.
How do memory and anxiety work together?
Anxiety interferes with the processing of verbal information in working memory. Verbal working memory is filled with worrisome thoughts so the child is unable to process new information.
Anxiety causes invasive thoughts that trigger worry. Worry is an underlying feature of anxiety disorders. Worry can be characterized by frequent unease and allowing one's mind to dwell on problems. Excessive worry can overtake a person’s thought process, a phenomenon referred to as an “attentional bias”—you focus on something due to reoccurring thoughts. The worry can be so invasive that it takes a center stage in cognitive activities, replacing other more important information.
Constant worry makes it more effortful to process new information efficiently, resulting in the child expending more effort and time to complete a task. For instance, when writing an essay, a child with anxiety may take twice as long and require twice the concentration and effort as their peers, because they are constantly worrying about whether their ideas are good enough or their content is perfect.
Working memory acts as a buffer to help the student work through the stress and anxiety. A child with low working memory is especially vulnerable to the negative effects of anxiety. They are often very hard on themselves and expect the worst-case scenario. But the effects of anxiety are not always negative. Moderate levels of anxiety can be healthy and can motivate a student to perform well on exams to avoid negative feedback.
In contrast, studies have shown that visual-spatial working memory is not affected by generalized or performance anxiety, because worrisome thoughts are managed by verbal and not visual-spatial resources.
Tips for boosting memory skills
Here are some handy tips for boosting memory skills in children.
Memory is often one of the first things to disappear when anxiety kicks in. So when you practice, practice, and practice till your performance is automated, you can rely on other parts of the brain to help out.
Snack on it
Studies show that foods that are high in flavonoids, like blueberries, kale, and dark chocolate (70% cacao solids or more), can enhance working memory. Some of these foods can improve working memory within two hours of eating them.
If anxiety is overwhelming you so you can’t focus your attention, then grab a pencil and doodle. Research shows that doodling keeps your attention from drifting away so you can remember better.