It is said that stress can kill you, and it also can make you forget the details of an overwhelming or frightening experience, especially one that leaves you anxious and fearful of the future. Severely upsetting events, such as the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, or a divorce can bring on panic attacks.
People who have repeated panic attacks may have panic disorder, a condition that affects 6 million adults, or 2.7 percent of the U.S. population, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). The association reports that the disorder affects women twice as much as men, and about 2 to 3 percent of Americans experience panic disorder in a year.
Panic disorder catches many people off guard because these repeated episodes of intense fear seemingly happen out of the blue, and their unpredictability is among the reasons why people are anxious about them. Such anxiety can lead to memory loss that makes it challenging to recall what happened during a panic attack and how.
Panic attacks are usually marked with specific physical signs and symptoms that make them easy to spot. Among them are:
All of these can develop rapidly, but they usually peak within 10 minutes. While the experience may be over quickly, a person can be affected long after the dust settles. In addition to developing a fear that these episodes may return, a person may not be able to recall what happened during the time of their panic attack.
Rivier University, which explores the relationship between anxiety and memory loss, says understanding how anxiety and memory loss are linked begins with understanding the body’s stress response, which begins in the brain.
“Your body’s ‘fight-or-flight’ reaction helps you counter real or perceived life-threatening situations quickly, and that includes when you’re anxious,” it explains.
How the body responds to stress enables us to face life-threatening situations head-on, and research says this actually benefits psychological functions like memory, according to the university. It also cites a Brain Sciences study that asserts everyday anxiety can improve one’s memory. However, excessive anxiety is another matter.
“People with high anxiety have to be careful,” study co-author Myra Fernandes told ScienceDaily. “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,” Fernandes said.
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As Rivier University explains, excessive anxiety can tire out the body and hurt the benefits that have been linked to the stress response. Memory problems are among the negative effects that chronic stress can cause. If people are worried about panic attacks, it can boost their stress response, causing them to have trouble remembering their experiences, perhaps before, during, and after having a panic attack.
People who have panic disorder and are under a lot of stress also could develop a dissociative disorder that forms as a result of one trying to cope with too much stress and anxiety.
As WebMD explains, “Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, consciousness, awareness, identity, and/or perception. When one or more of these functions is disrupted, symptoms can result.” It goes on to say that these symptoms can interfere with social and work activities and relationships.
According to the National Health Service of the United Kingdom, dissociation includes feeling disconnected from oneself and the world. It can also lead some people to adopt different identities. Periods of memory loss are among the signs of dissociation as well as problems with movement and sensation. Dissociation can be short-lived, such as over the course of hours or days, or for longer periods that stretch over weeks or months.
If you or someone you know are feeling stressed about panic attacks, please know that the condition is treatable with professional help. Extreme levels of anxiety that are left untreated can lead to other mental health disorders, including clinical depression, which has been diagnosed in people who have panic disorder.
The Mayo Clinic also notes that it is possible to have both conditions at the same time and advises people to seek treatment for them.
Treatment can include a combination of antidepressant medications and lifestyle changes. Consult with a doctor or mental health care professional from an accredited facility to ensure you get the proper diagnosis and care for your situation.
ADAA. (n.d.). Panic Disorder. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/panic-disorder
ADAA. (n.d.). Facts & Statistics. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics
(2018, November 20). The Relationship Between Anxiety and Memory Loss. Retrieved from https://www.rivier.edu/academics/blog-posts/the-relationship-between-anxiety-and-memory-loss/
Lee, Christopher, Fernandes, & A., M. (2017, December 27). Emotional Encoding Context Leads to Memory Bias in Individuals with High Anxiety. Retrieved May 28, 2020, from https://www.mdpi.com/2076-3425/8/1/6/htm
University of Waterloo. "Manageable levels of anxiety can help your memory." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 February 2018. Retrieved from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/02/180226085752.htm.
Goldberg, J. (2019, April 06). Mental Health: Dissociative Amnesia. Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociative-amnesia
(n.d.). National Health Service of the UK. Retrieved from https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/dissociative-disorders/
Daniel K. Hall-Flavin, M. (2017, May 13). Severe, persistent depression. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/clinical-depression/faq-20057770
Depression and anxiety can occur together. Read about the connection. (2017, June 02). Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/expert-answers/depression-and-anxiety/faq-20057989