Subjectively speaking, anxiety feels pretty awful. But if a tendency towards constant worry were a purely negative trait, Mother Nature would have eliminated it long ago. Being a worrywart clearly must have its upsides, and science is starting to discover them.
Previous studies have shown a little bit of anxiety helps you avoid danger and reach peak motivation, now new research out of Canada's University of Waterloo that was recently published in Brain Sciences is adding another item to the growing list of anxiety's benefits: improved memory.
You can stress your way to a better memory.
To test the effects of moderate anxiety on memory, the research team behind the study gathered 80 undergrad volunteers and used a standard personality questionnaire to determine their tendency towards anxiety. Based on the results, the students were separated into "low anxiety" and "high anxiety" groups. (Volunteers with any sort of clinical anxiety issue were excluded from the study.)
Then, both groups were shown a series of word puzzles on a computer with either a neutral of a negative image, such as a picture of a car crash, in the background. How did those anxiety-producing images affect subjects memory of the word puzzles?
When natural worriers (the high anxiety group) were confronted with worrying pictures, they actually remembered the associated word puzzles better. That's because a small dose of stress "gives you a heightened sense of awareness and makes you attuned to details you wouldn't be otherwise," study co-author Myra Fernandes explains. "That's a plus if you're trying to remember something later."
Your tendency to stress, in other words, might not feel terribly nice, but it's actually helping you pay attention to and remember important new information better.
The down side of remembering while anxious
Of course, this research doesn't mean that super high levels of anxiety are healthy. Crippling anxiety won't help your memory and should be treated, not celebrated. Nor does it mean that those with a naturally stress-happy personality don't have to watch out for the negative side effects of their tendency toward anxiety.
Anxious individuals remember facts and details better, but they also tend to get the emotional tenor of the situation wrong more often. They remember what happened, but they also interpret the whole thing as being more negative than it was. In the context of this study that simply meant more anxious subjects tended to feel more irrationally negative about the neutral word puzzles that accompanied stressful images, but in real life this effect could cause actual trouble.
"Say you're having the worst day possible--you slept through your alarm, you slipped and fell in mud--and then the barista at Starbucks asks you a totally neutral question, like if you want whipped cream on your mocha," study co-author Christopher Lee offered Time as an example. "Because you entered this situation in such a negative mindset, you may remember him being rude or hostile or horrible for some reason, even when he's not."
The good news, however, is that if you're aware of this bias towards gloom, you can correct for it, getting the benefits of your anxiety-charged memory without the drawbacks. That should offer some comfort to those of us who go through life with a continual loop of worries playing in out heads. That tendency towards anxiety is at least helping you perform better at school, work, or wherever a sharp memory will help you get ahead.