Do you find that your anxiety is impacting how a situation happened? You might be wondering if anxiety can create false memories? Yes, it sure can! When you experience anxiety, your brain becomes hyperactive, and you may start to think of worst-case scenarios or imagine things that didn't actually happen. This leads to the creation of false memories, which are memories of events that did not occur or are distorted versions of real events. False memories can be vivid and feel just as real as actual memories, which can be confusing and distressing for the person experiencing them.
So why does this happen?
Anxiety can create false memories through a phenomenon called source monitoring. Source monitoring refers to the cognitive process of determining the origin of a memory, such as the time, place, or circumstances under which it was formed. When people are anxious, their brains may have difficulty distinguishing between actual memories and imagined or suggested ones. As a result, they start to believe that something that never happened, or something they heard or imagined, actually occurred. Anxiety is so convincing! We begin to trust how our anxiety recalls situations versus what others say or even what other evidence you have that challenges that anxiety’s memory, but it has become hard to trust yourself and not your anxiety.
Anxiety can also lead to a heightened state of emotional arousal, which can cause people to recall events more vividly or remember details that may not have actually occurred. This can lead to the creation of false memories that are difficult to distinguish from actual memories. So really, anxiety can create false memories as it affects the way our brain processes and stores information and can cause us to become more susceptible to suggestion and distortion.
How do I stop anxiety from influencing my memories?
Awareness Building: Bring awareness to these experiences, and acknowledge that the memory may not be as accurate as you are thinking it is.
Label your thoughts: When you begin to feel anxious, call it out, tell yourself “this is an anxious thought”. This helps you clearly identify the thought and the source (which is anxiety).
Challenge your thoughts: When you start to feel anxious, try to gently challenge your thoughts and evaluate them objectively. Ask yourself questions like "Is this thought realistic?" or "What evidence do I have to support this thought?" This can help you avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions based on anxiety.
Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a technique that involves fine-tuning your attention to the present moment without judging yourself of that focus and that you are not attending to your to-do list (cause let’s be honest, it will be there to do even after practicing mindfulness for 5-minutes, 10-minutes or more). Practicing mindfulness can help you recognize when your mind is wandering and bring your attention back to the present moment. This helps ground us as anxiety often leaps us ahead of what is going on in the moment.
Get enough sleep: Getting enough sleep is important for your mental health. Lack of sleep can increase anxiety and make it more difficult to cope with stressful situations.
Practice relaxation techniques: Techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and visualization can help you relax and reduce anxiety. This is another way to bring your focus back to the moment. Those anxious thoughts are going to try and disrupt the moment, but with practice, you can keep them at bay.
Mental health professional: If you're struggling with anxiety and false memories, it can be helpful to seek professional help. A therapist can work with you to develop coping strategies and provide support as you work through these challenges.
Anxiety and false memories are common experiences, and you are not alone! By taking care of yourself and seeking support when needed, you can manage your anxiety and prevent it from creating false memories. Therapy can help you put you back in control when anxiety is feeling that it has taken the “steering wheel”.
Blog Disclaimer - These posts are not meant to treat, diagnose, or serve as a replacement for therapy. If you or someone you know is experiencing a mental health emergency, please contact your local crisis center or dial 911. Here are more immediate resources as well.