A recent study published in Brain Sciences reveals that a moderate degree of anxiety gives you a heightened sense of awareness and helps you to remember small details later. This can be a great asset – especially when you can recall subtle details of milestone events like birthdays, weddings, or even major work events after the fact.
Low-level anxiety is better than no anxiety at all, especially for your memory
Eighty college students received a standard screening questionnaire to deduce everyday anxiety levels. Classified as having either low or high anxiety, the students were then asked to study a set of words on a computer screen and answer questions about spelling and meaning. Some of the words were overlaid onto negatives images – i.e., a picture of an auto accident – while some words were overlaid onto neutral images like a house.
When recalling words later, students with higher anxiety levels better remembered the words displayed over negative images. While the overall findings show that possessing higher anxiety improves memory performance, there is one downside. People adopt a “negative retrieval mode,” which can lead to biased memories. “For people with high anxiety, the emotional context in the background tainted their later memory of these words that were otherwise neutral,” says co-author Myra Fernandes, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Canada. While anxiety is a disadvantage in this regard, overall, Fernandes notes that low anxiety levels are better than having none at all. “Having butterflies in your stomach might actually make that information more memorable to you later on,” she says.
This jibes with previous research that shows you are more likely to remember a dishonest face than an honest one. That negative retrieval mode helps you hone your survival instincts – to protect you, in this case. While this is obviously a great instinct in the “fight-or-flight” short-term, if you are always in this frame of mind, your anxiety will get the best of you. So how do you make your anxiety work for you instead of against you?
How to channel your anxiety for good
Since a moderate degree of anxiety is actually beneficial, it’s important to learn to work with it, so it can help you in different situations.
Retrain your brain. Research at McGill University shows that anxious people are more attuned to negative feedback and give it more weight than positive or neutral attention. For example: you look out at an audience and zero in on the only frowning face in a crowd. Luckily, the researchers found that people can train themselves to downplay the negative thought patterns that produce insecurity and lead to anxiety. They even came up with a brain training game to help you reorient your brain to see the positive over the negative.
Practice gratitude. Practice looking for the smiling faces in a crowd by choosing to see the positive in people and everyday situations. Go one step further and reflect it back to them. Studies show that just one random act of kindness a day reduces stress, anxiety, and depression. Need help getting started? Take our 28-day kindness challenge.
Practice deep breathing. If distressing thoughts keep you up at night, or you’re panicking in the middle of a situation, take a moment to check in with yourself and practice one of these 3 deep breathing exercises.
Get out of your comfort zone. The hallmark of anxiety is avoidance — you steer clear of the things that make you uncomfortable. Though it helps you avoid distressing feelings, it only increases anxiety long-term. Putting yourself into stressful situations teaches you that you do have the coping mechanisms to handle it, and that even if the worst does happen, you survived it. Exposure therapy — gradually subjecting yourself to the feared object or situation — helps you become less sensitive to it over time. Learn 10 simple ways to get out of your comfort zone now.