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Am I losing my memory or is it anxiety?

Memory loss and anxiety can sometimes feel similar, making it hard to tell which one you’re experiencing. Many people worry they have dementia or Alzheimer’s when normal age-related memory challenges or anxiety are the true culprits. Understanding the key differences between memory loss and anxiety is the first step in getting proper treatment and relief.

What is normal memory loss?

Some degree of forgetfulness is normal as we age. Typical age-related memory challenges include:

  • Forgetting names, appointments, where you left keys or glasses
  • Taking longer to recall information and learn new skills
  • Occasionally forgetting why you entered a room or what you were about to say
  • Struggling to focus or follow conversations when multitasking

These lapses are usually temporary and don’t impact your ability to function independently. You can manage typical memory loss by reducing distractions, following routines, using memory aids like calendars and notes, and mentally rehearsing information you want to retain.

When is memory loss concerning?

More concerning memory loss involves:

  • Frequently forgetting important dates, events, conversations, or recently learned information
  • Regularly struggling with familiar tasks like driving directions, recipes, or rules of a game
  • Not recognizing close friends and family members
  • Repeating questions and stories in the same conversation
  • Becoming lost or disoriented in familiar places

Ongoing memory challenges like these may indicate an underlying condition like dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, or vitamin B12 deficiency. It’s important to see a doctor for an evaluation.

What is anxiety?

Anxiety involves chronic, excessive worry about everyday situations and events. Symptoms include:

  • Feeling tense, nervous, on edge
  • Uncontrollable worry or rumination
  • Increased heart rate, sweating, trembling
  • Fatigue, insomnia, gastrointestinal issues
  • Difficulty concentrating and making decisions

Anxiety is considered a disorder when symptoms persist for over six months and interfere with daily activities. It can develop due to genetics, brain chemistry, trauma, stress, or other medical conditions.

How anxiety mimics memory loss

Many symptoms of anxiety can feel similar to memory problems, including:

  • Concentration challenges – Anxiety makes it hard to focus, so you may struggle to absorb information.
  • Distracted thoughts – Worry and rumination occupy your mind, making it hard to encode memories.
  • Multitasking difficulties – Anxiety affects attention span, so remembering conversations while doing tasks may be hard.
  • Poor sleep – Anxiety disrupts sleep cycles, inhibiting memory consolidation as you rest.
  • Stress – High cortisol from chronic anxiety impairs memory centers in the brain like the hippocampus.

In these ways, anxiety mimics memory loss. The forgetfulness is not caused by permanent brain damage, however, and memory typically improves when anxiety is treated.

Key differences between memory loss and anxiety

Despite some overlapping symptoms, there are key differences between anxiety and true memory loss:


Memory Loss Gradual, progressive worsening over years
Anxiety Recent, abrupt onset related to stress or trauma

Type of forgetting

Memory Loss Forgets details and events, unable to recall later
Anxiety Temporarily blocked recall, remembers later when calmer

Everyday function

Memory Loss Impairs ability to care for oneself, work, drive, etc
Anxiety Able to function but requires more effort


Memory Loss Unaware, denies problems
Anxiety Hyperaware of focus and memory challenges


Memory Loss Reduced ability to reason, learn, understand
Anxiety Normal reasoning when focused


Memory Loss Gets steadily worse over time
Anxiety May stay consistent or come and go

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you’re experiencing significant, persistent memory loss or anxiety that is interrupting your daily life. Some recommendations:

  • Get checked by your doctor to rule out causes like vitamin deficiencies, thyroid disorders, infections, or other medical conditions.
  • Ask for a psychiatric evaluation for anxiety, depression, PTSD, or related disorders if mental health symptoms are present.
  • Request a neurocognitive exam to assess memory, reasoning, and information processing skills.
  • Your doctor can help determine if your symptoms are due to anxiety, normal aging, or a more serious neurological condition like dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • There are treatment options available for anxiety, depression, vitamin deficiencies, infections, early-stage dementia, and other causes of memory loss and confusion.

Don’t assume memory challenges are just normal aging without consulting your doctor. Identifying and addressing the root cause can help improve symptoms and overall wellbeing.

Coping strategies

Whether due to anxiety or memory loss, the following strategies can help minimize symptoms:

For concentration challenges

  • Reduce distractions when learning new info or attending events
  • Focus on one task at a time instead of multitasking
  • Exercise before brain-intensive activities to boost focus
  • Meditate to improve attention span

For forgetfulness

  • Carry a notebook to jot down tasks, notes, questions, directions
  • Set phone reminders for appointments, events, and medications
  • Have a designated spot for commonly misplaced items like keys
  • Follow routines like walking the same route, putting items in familiar places
  • Repeat names and key details out loud to help encoding

For anxiety relief

  • Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga
  • Exercise daily to reduce stress hormones and boost serotonin
  • Get regular sleep and avoid sleep deprivation
  • Limit caffeine which can exacerbate anxiety symptoms
  • Try mood-boosting supplements like magnesium, L-theanine, or lavender
  • Consider therapy or medication if anxiety persists and disrupts daily life

When to see a doctor

If you are experiencing ongoing memory loss or anxiety that interferes with daily activities, make an appointment with your doctor for an evaluation. Often treatable causes can be identified. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Physical exam and lab tests to check for causes like infections, hormone imbalances, vitamin deficiencies
  • Cognitive testing to evaluate memory, reasoning and problem solving
  • Neuroimaging tests like CT or MRI scans to look at brain structure and function
  • Mental health assessment for anxiety, depression or trauma-related conditions
  • Treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medications, occupational therapy, or memory training strategies

Don’t assume memory loss is inevitable. Identifying and addressing any underlying conditions causing impairment can help maximize brain health and functioning.

When it’s time to see a specialist

Your primary care doctor can perform initial evaluations and testing for memory loss. Based on your symptoms and test results, they may recommend referring you to a specialist like:

  • Neurologist – For suspected Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, stroke, or other neurological conditions affecting memory.
  • Psychiatrist – If anxiety, depression, PTSD or other mental health disorder requires diagnosis and treatment.
  • Neuropsychologist – For in-depth cognitive testing to identify specific areas of memory loss versus anxiety.
  • Geriatric psychiatrist – If memory impairment presents alongside mental health conditions in older adults.

Specialists can provide targeted treatment plans which may include:

  • Medications to slow cognitive decline in Alzheimer’s, dementia, mood disorders, etc.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) for anxiety management
  • Neuropsychological testing to identify specific cognitive deficits
  • Occupational therapy to establish routines, tools and environmental aids for memory support
  • Memory training to strengthen brain’s encoding, storage, and retrieval functions

Don’t hesitate to ask for a specialist referral if your doctor suspects your symptoms require expert diagnosis and care. Acting quickly can help identify opportunities for early intervention.


Research shows certain lifestyle measures may help preserve memory and cognitive abilities as we age. Recommendations include:

  • Brain training – Learn new skills, do crossword puzzles, play strategy games to strengthen neural connections.
  • Stress management – Chronic stress damages the hippocampus and impairs memory. Try relaxation techniques.
  • Good sleep hygiene – Getting 7-9 hours nightly allows memory consolidation during REM sleep stages.
  • Exercise – Daily aerobic activity increases blood flow to the brain.
  • Healthy diet – Omega-3s, antioxidants, B vitamins support brain cell health.
  • Active social life – Social engagement seems to benefit the aging brain.

Though we can’t entirely prevent age-related cognitive decline, a brain-healthy lifestyle offers benefits for memory, focus and neurological function.


  • Memory loss and anxiety share some common symptoms, but have key differences.
  • Normal memory challenges just involve mild, temporary lapses in recall ability.
  • See a doctor promptly if you experience progressive memory loss, difficulty functioning, or personality changes.
  • Anxiety often mimics memory problems due to concentration challenges and distracted thoughts.
  • Relaxation techniques, routine, cognitive behavioral therapy, and medication can help reduce anxiety’s effects on memory.
  • Your doctor can assess whether anxiety or more serious memory loss conditions are causing your symptoms.
  • Diagnosing and addressing any underlying conditions is important to maximize cognitive health.

If you notice ongoing memory lapses or anxiety disrupting your daily life, don’t assume that nothing can be done – consult your doctor. There are many strategies and treatments that can get you back on track to feeling and functioning at your best. Catching and addressing problems early maximizes positive outcomes.