Good news for worrywarts everywhere. Your ability to remember events in excruciating, embarrassing detail can actually be a benefit that sets you apart from the rest. A new study found that people with manageable levels of anxiety were able to improve their ability to recall memories.
In a study for Brain Sciences, researchers from the University of Waterloo decided to test the power of anxiety. Eighty undergraduate students were recruited to report their levels of anxiety and take a memory test. The students were asked to remember words overlaid with images. When the images were associated with negative events like car accidents, the anxious students scored higher on the memory test — better able to make connections than their less anxious brethren.
“Emotional events from the past can taint our perception of the present, making current circumstances more memorable,” the researchers conclude in the study. “When we constrain our memory search to information or events encountered within a negative context, or learnt using a negative mode of processing, some memory benefit held by those thoughts may be conferred unto incidental stimuli within our current environment.”
In other words, anxiety could be honing your ability to focus and recall detailed information. This study is part of ongoing research that is complicating the downsides of anxiety and worrying. One 2017 Stanford study found that elderly participants who worried were able to offset some of the negative effects on memory caused by depression and anxiety.
The butterflies in your stomach can be helpful when you need to remember a client’s name, but researchers caution that anxiety’s memory superpower can become an unhelpful crutch. When you’re anxious, you’re more susceptible to using negative emotional cues to make connections about the world around you.
The researchers call this “negative retrieval mode,” which can create negative biases around neutral events. When you’re anxious, that difficult meeting with clients carries outsized importance, and your feelings about that one client’s tone may cloud your objective judgment about what you remember.
It’s a reminder to be mindful of separating fact from fiction in our memories. When anxiety veers into obsessive rumination, the bad feelings can outweigh the potential memory benefits. If anxiety and worrying are running your life, there are research-backed tips to let it go. They begin with acknowledging that we are all on this embarrassing and sometimes-anxious journey called life together.
For many of us, working anxious-free is an impossibility. There will always be deadlines that make us sweat, presentations that make our hearts race. What this study shows is that anxiety does not always have to be an emotion that holds your mind back. In some situations, it can even be an advantage.
Monica Torres is a reporter for Ladders. She is based in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.