Can Anxiety Problems Cause Cognitive Deficits?

Anxiety is one of the most common psychological pathologies in the general population and therefore one of the most studied.

However, we might be faced with side effects that until now have not been given the prominence they deserve. With this article we will try to find out whether the anxiety could in some cases affect the patient cognitively.

    Can Anxiety Disorders Produce Cognitive Deficits?

    In order to be able to address the question of whether anxiety problems can lead to cognitive deficits, we must first consider some issues. The reality is that when talking about generalized anxiety disorder, professionals are faced with a huge range of possible symptoms, which also manifest themselves in specific ways or with a certain intensity depending on the individual patient.

    Some of these symptoms at the psychological level could be an extreme and disproportionate concern in certain situations, constant ruminations and visualizations of pessimistic scenarios, a perception of threats in any scenario, whether the stimuli are aversive or not, a weak tolerance for uncertainty or fear in decision making.

    Ruminations and feelings of worry are said to be a constant in the individual. Likewise, it should big problems to focus attention and also to reassure, As the nervous state would be very common. With this scenario, it is not difficult to anticipate that the answer to the question of whether anxiety problems can lead to cognitive deficits was in the affirmative.

    The question that should concern us, in fact, is not whether the pathology of anxiety can lead to cognitive deficits, but to what extent does this phenomenon occur, which areas are affected and what repercussions can this symptomatology have?, As well as its reversibility.

    What are the cognitive sequelae of anxiety

    Entering the realm of cognitive factors that may be affected by an anxiety disorder, there are several that can be considered. Let’s review the most important.

    1. Selective attention

    We would first find selective attention, for which we are able to focus our attention on a particular stimulus, In search of a specific pattern among all the amalgamations of information that we perceive through the senses. This ability might decrease due to anxiety, making it difficult to distinguish between all of this data, making selective care less quick and effective than it would be under normal conditions.

    2. Working memory

    One of the executive functions where anxiety could interfere is working memory. This function is what it allows the brain to temporarily store information so that it can actively process this data. When considering whether anxiety problems can cause cognitive deficits, remember that memory can be one of the major impairments.

      3. Control of inhibitors

      Inhibitory control or cognitive inhibition is the ability we have to control these impulsive responses to certain stimuli and instead be able to modulate the response by reason. When anxiety disorders such as GAD generate inhibitory control difficulties, it will be easier for the patient to get carried away by automatic responses guided by emotions and impulsivity rather than giving weight to prior reasoning.

      4. Decision making

      As we saw in the previous point, anxiety it could weaken our ability to make rational decisions. When we find ourselves embroiled in anxiety effects, it is more likely that it will cost us to make a calculated and rational decision. Instead, we could go for a quick and visceral response, without properly assessing the repercussions of each of the alternatives we were dealing with for the specific problem.

      5. Emotional processing

      Another cognitive factor that may be diminished in patients with anxiety is this it’s about identifying and processing emotions. In this sense, the individual may find it difficult to capture the emotions of himself and others. He may not identify them correctly, not do it as quickly as before, or assign emotional states that are not right for this moment, affected by what he is actually feeling.

      6. Fundamental attribution error

      Another effect that anxiety can have in our cognition is to potentiate the possibility of falling at an angle, Like that of correspondence or attribution, also known as fundamental attribution error. This mental shortcut causes us to tend to associate certain behaviors with specific types of people rather than reasonably assess the real factors underlying those behaviors.

      The importance of emotional stimuli

      Once we understand how anxiety issues can cause cognitive deficits, as we’ve looked at which factors can be changed most easily, it’s time to look at one of the things that most affects these deficits. They are emotional stimuli. It is not surprising that a stimulus that generates negative emotions in an anxious person is likely to potentiate its effects.

      In this line, an individual who suffers from anxiety in some of its forms, such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and who perceives a stimulus as threatening, will see an increase in the symptoms of anxiety that he suffers from due to his condition. This increased stress could obscure or cause difficulty in some of the cognitive functions that we saw above.

      In particular, the capacities related to working memory, selective attention or inhibitory control would be impaired. This hypothesis was verified by an experiment in which a group of participants were asked to perform tasks in which these faculties come into play, after being subjected to stressors that caused anxious symptomatology.

      The results showed that these individuals they scored significantly lower than the components of the control group, Who had performed the tasks without having been exposed to these stressful conditions. Another test to see if the answer to the question of whether anxiety problems can lead to cognitive deficits is positive.


      After knowing in depth how anxiety and related disorders can affect a person’s cognitive faculties, it remains to ask a very relevant question: are these deficits reversible? The answer is reassuring: yes, they are. Anxiety is a disorder that affects many aspects of a person’s life, however the positive part is that it is a well-studied condition with many treatment options.

      The person who suffers from anxiety and who initiates psychological therapy to remedy this situation, will experience a gradual improvement of all the anxiety symptoms, both in its psychological and physical aspect. When this happens, the cognitive deficits that occurred in this individual should have disappeared to return to its state before the onset of anxiety.

      In order to facilitate this process and speed up, the therapist may offer the patient specific exercises aimed at working on these specific skills. For example, you can order certain activities in which the subject would have to distinguish between different items to locate a particular pattern, disregarding feelings of anxiety.

      It can also focus on working memory work, achieve simple problems that require attention and thinking about different elements, Without becoming frustrating for the person but requiring a certain effort to be able to exercise his cognitive capacities and thus overcome more quickly the effects that the anxiety could have caused.

      The conclusion we need to come to whether anxiety problems can cause cognitive deficits is that yes, it can indeed occur and is in fact common in the wide variety of symptomatology and effects, as we have seen in detail. , but it should not be hopeless for the sufferer, as it is a reversible process and can also be cut faster with simple exercises.

      The most important thing, as always with a mental health disorder, is to get yourself in the hands of a good psychologist so that you can find the cure as quickly as possible.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Calvo, MG, García, MD (2000). Anxiety and cognition: an integrative framework. Spanish newspaper of motivation and emotion.
      • Langarita-Llorente, R., Gràcia-García, P. (2019). Neuropsychology of generalized anxiety disorder: a systematic review. Tower. Neurol. (Ed. Impr.).
      • Packard, MG (2009). Anxiety, Cognition, and Habit: A Perspective from Multiple Memory Systems. Brain research. Elsevier.
      • Sylvester, CM, Corbetta, M., Raichle, ME, Rodebaugh, T., Schlaggar, BL, Sheline, YI, Zorumski, CF, Lenze, EJ (2012). Functional network dysfunction in anxiety and anxiety disorders. Trends in neuroscience. Elsevier.

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