A little fretting is ok: Study finds low to moderate levels of worry or anxiety actually help your memory

You’re pacing the floor restlessly. Cold sweat is trickling down your face. You throw glances at the clock while reaching out for a stick of cigarette.

Body language says it all. You’re worried sick over a work deadline hanging over your head like the proverbial sword of Damocles. Worry and its first cousin, anxiety, are the reason why media people usually puff a cigarette to ease the butterflies in their stomach. It pushes the student about to take a major exam to toss and turn in bed the night before. It makes first-time fathers pace the hospital floor while their wives are in the throes of labor.

Anxiety can cause panic attacks, psychosomatic illness and other harmful effects alright. Too much of it can lead to a stroke or a heart attack.

But a new study shows anxiety isn’t always the big bad wolf it is touted to be. It can be the good cop which sharpens our memory. The right level of anxiety can help us in the same way a little amount of adrenaline helps stressed people get over the hump.

A University of Waterloo study on 80 female undergraduate students showed that anxiety, kept to a manageable level, can help people recall events down to the last detail. Half of the students were randomly made to join a deep encoding instruction group. The other half were made to join a shallow encoding group. Both groups were tested using Depression Anxiety Stress Scales.

Highly anxious students were more sensitive to the kind of emotions a certain memory evoked. These people got so involved in recalling things, they ended up giving an emotional color, even to neutral events that didn’t require intense feelings.

“To some degree, there is an optimal level of anxiety that is going to benefit your memory,” the study’s co-author Myra Fernandes, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Waterloo, said.

But that doesn’t mean we should make fretting a habit when deadlines loom ahead. There’s a flipside to the coin.

Fernandes warns that people who are too anxious can reach a tipping point. Christopher Lee, a psychology Ph.D. candidate at Waterloo said thinking of the worse case scenarios more often might turn you into a negative thinker. You see nothing but impending disaster in any corner.

You become the resident Grump everyone wants to avoid because you see nothing good in everything and everyone. After all, no one wants to go near a killjoy. It is therefore important to be aware of biases, that we, in our episodes of anxiety, must give to people, places and events.

If a little fretting is fine, what about too much of it? Can worrying too much, or being overanxious help us at all?

Too much of anything is bad.

Experts at Harvard Medical School shows how severe anxiety can bring us down by listing down its consequences:

  • Gastrointestinal disorders — A New Zealand study of subjects with gastroenteritis (inflammation of the digestive tract) found a link between severe anxiety and and the occurrence of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) after a bowel infection.
  • Chronic respiratory ailments — Many studies on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) showed that those who suffered from anxiety attacks were confined in the hospital more often. Their lungs also experience more severe distress.
  • Heart disease — Results of the Nurses’ Health Study showed that women with the highest phobic anxiety levels raised their chances of having a heart attack by 59 percent. Of these, 31 percent were more likely to die from cardiac arrest compared to patients who were less stressed.

Anxiety is part of our lives. We must learn to control it before it controls us.

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