Anxiety Actually Improves Your Memory

This content is recommended for 30~60 minute sessions. Note that tutors may not be familiar with the content. Make sure you consult with your tutor before using this material. 


After a quick greeting, read the following article out loud. Your tutor will go over pronunciation if necessary.

CREDIT: Getty Images

[P1] 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.

[P2] 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.
[P3] 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.)

[P4] 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?

[P5] 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.”

[P6] 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
[P7] 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.

[P8] 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.

[P9] “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.”

[P10] 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.



Read the word/expression and definition out loud. Your tutor will go over anything you do not understand. Practice creating a sentence or two to make sure you know how to use the word/expression properly.

Vocabulary/ Expressions

Expression Definition
eliminate (v) to remove (something that is not wanted or needed) : to get rid of (something)
e.g. The body naturally eliminates waste products.
worrywart (n) a person who worries too much or who worries about things that are not important
e.g. My father is a real worrywart.
confront (v) to deal with (something, such as a problem or danger)
e.g. They confronted [=(more commonly) encountered] many obstacles along the way.
cripple (v) to make (something) unable to work normally : to cause great damage to (something)
e.g. the crippling effects of the disease
drawback (n) something that causes problems
e.g. The trip sounds great, but cost is a major drawback.

Discussion Questions

Use the following questions as a guideline to help develop an interesting conversation with your tutor. Feel free to diverge from these suggestions if anything interesting comes up.

  1. Summarize the article in your own words.
  2. What are some benefits of anxiety?
  3. Describe the research. What were the findings?
  4. “There’s nothing wrong or evil about having a bad day. There’s everything wrong with making others have to have it with you.” –Neil Cavuto. Share your thoughts with your Cambly tutor!


Go over any new expressions or vocabulary that you learned today.

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