Wednesday, November 28, 2012

How Anxiety Effects the Brain

“Being under pressure alters how different areas of the brain communicate. In a nutshell, the prefrontal cortex works less well and decouples—or stops talking to---other brain areas that are important for maximal cognitive horsepower.  When a particular brain area stops communicating with other areas, this can have dire consequences for our thinking and memory capabilities.” Sian Beilock, Choke 

Some people are more prone to worry, anxiety and self-doubt than others. As if these vexing feelings of inadequacy and lack of competence were not enough, the mental performance of these individuals is also negatively impacted.

According to Sian Beilock, an expert on cognitive science at the University of Chicago, a person suffering from worry will have diminished cognitive function. Specifically, the working memory of the self-doubting individual will be impaired, simply because they are perplexed with worry and anxiety.

When a person is overcome daily by worry, fears of failure and self-doubt (stressors to the brain) the prefrontal cortex of their brain is less able to communicate with other regions of the brain when performing cognitive tasks. It’s as if just the mere presence of worry shuts down the normally fluid connections between the various portions of the brain and the individual ends up with fewer mental reserves to draw from when performing intellectually demanding tasks. The anxiety-riddled person is truly at a disadvantage.

Sian Beliock discusses a very interesting study. Generally speaking, students with higher working memory tend to be more prone to worry and anxiety during tests whereas students with lower working memory experience less anxiety and worry during tests

It isn’t clear why people who score higher on tests of working memory are more prone to worry (especially during test-taking situations).

Could it be that individuals with higher working memory take things more seriously, internalizing test scores as diagnostic of their ability, which ends up creating an influx of worry? These students unwittingly create a “do or die” situation in their brain and worry intensifies. Once worry and self-doubt enter the brain, cognitive performance declines.

For those of us who are chronic worriers…self-doubters…it is very crucial to make efforts to work through this.  The book highlights the importance of venting—verbally expressing how one feels or, even better, writing down how you feel.  You need to find a way to prevent feelings of worry and inadequacy from entering. Because, once these feelings arise, they direct mental energy away from important cognitive functions—like coming up with a creative idea, performing well on a test, or playing a musical piece to perfection.

It is also a very good idea to avoid and actively ignore negative, critical people if you are a worrier. After all, you already have to deal with the harsh criticisms regularly generated by your own brain, you don’t need additional help from other people.

What's the good news? According to Beilock, for those of us continually plagued by worry, we are not performing at optimum cognitive capacity and there is GREAT room for improvement. (However, if you are not a worrier, you are probably already performing at your optimum cognitive capacity.)


  1. Really interesting and useful - thanks! I've ordered her book, to find out more.

    This backs up my own experience - I've had to deal with emergencies as a pilot, and had exceptional clarity because I wasn't stressed beforehand, while long-term tasks can cause a descending spiral of anxiety and poor performance. I suspect that, in the latter case, an increasing proportion of the brain/mind is just 'given over' to worrying. Wish I knew how to stop that . . . ;)

  2. Thank you for taking the time to read. I am so glad to hear that you bought her book. It's fantastic. You're a pilot? Wow, really cool!

  3. Just this minute got the shipping confirmation from Amazon, so I'm looking forward to reading it. As for flying - not these days, Renee, as I'm an impoverished grad student. :(

  4. I often speak aloud my frustrations and worry, this may seem somewhat schizoid to others who witness this behavior but I always follow this declaration with a stern reproof to myself leaving the issue aside permanently! I know this may seem an odd thing but self doubt can be crippling.These are the best means I've found in my attempt to reach a serene state of mind, to vent and then overcome.

  5. O my God, Renee, your Xmas blog has been sent into orbit around Pluto! Never mind, have a beautiful Christmas! P.S. I've just come to know that in addition to ads on your blog which you may or may not know about (Big Brother 'Overwatch' being one such ad), ads on my site may be appearing to viewers, but not to me. Damn cunning, huh. AGP, 20th Dec 2012.

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