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A Surprising Perk of Anxiety

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Reasonable levels of anxiety boost the memory, a new study shows.

We usually associate anxiety with bad things, like headaches, decreased libido, upset stomachs and irritability. It’s true; high levels of anxiety and/or chronic anxiety can wreak havoc on our hormones and brain, leading to undesirable side effects. But manageable levels of stress can actually help us, by aiding memory. This is especially good news for those of us who tend to get anxious about… being too anxious.

A new study from the University of Waterloo looked at the role of anxiety and learning in a cohort of 80 undergrad students. All completed a Depression Anxiety Stress Scale to assess their anxiety levels. Then half were given a deep encoding instruction group, and the other half, shallow encoding. After the classwork, people who had felt manageable levels of anxiety were found to have an advantage remembering details, but people with higher levels of anxiety did not enjoy the same benefits.

“To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory, but we know from other research that high levels of anxiety can cause people to reach a tipping point, which impacts their memories and performance,” writes study co-author Myra Fernandes, a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo. The students with higher anxiety were, the researchers say, showing a sensitivity to the emotional context of their memories. So otherwise neutral information becomes “tainted” by an emotion it is associated with, which can bias or change the way you perceive an environment, and therefore learn.

Christopher Lee, a psychology Ph.D. candidate who worked on the study, wrote, “I think for the general public it is important to be aware of what biases you might bring to the table or what particular mindset you might be viewing the world in and how that might ultimately shape what we walk away seeing.”

For teachers and others who present for a living, it is helpful to note that lightening the mood when conveying material may help your students retain information better.


Kathryn Drury Wagner

Kathryn Drury Wagner is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles. She is the author of Hawaii’s Strangest, Ickiest, Wildest Book Ever!, a science and natural history “gross out” for young readers.  


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