Anxiety in Our Children: The Impact of Anxiety on Working Memory

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by Sara Erling

In my last article I mentioned that working memory is another factor to consider when looking at anxiety in our children. Bob Doman, founder and director of NACD, has been at the forefront of understanding working memory and its impact on global function since the early ‘80s. It is a big deal. It is not just big, but huge, gargantuan, as it is the foundation that permits us to think. It not only permits us to think, but it also plays a role in our ability to regulate our emotions. Let’s spend some time on working memory, defining its role in our ability to handle stress.

Let’s first review how the brain works in a simple way. Information comes into the brain through our senses. If our sensory channels are functioning normally, the information gets perceived correctly, then it gets processed through our short-term memory. Our working memory is what allows us to think about this information along with taking information that we already know out of long-term memory. For example, if I am sitting in a class and I am listening to a lecture, I am taking in what that teacher says, hearing the information, processing what they are saying, and using my working memory to think about what I already know about that topic, how what they say impacts what I already know, what client comes to mind when I think of what the teacher is saying, etc. I am visualizing, conceptualizing, and developing an opinion or my own thoughts about that particular topic and how it may or may not benefit my work.

According to Bob Doman, “Working memory is the foundation for global neurological maturity and function. It essentially encompasses most of what we think of as ‘thinking.’”

“The NACD model of cognitive function recognizes various components of thinking and learning. Of all of these functions, working memory, including executive function, encompasses the areas that impact simple and complex behavior regulation and problem solving the most. The development of various parts of executive function appears to be a good indicator of future academic success, as well as future life success. Mathematics, reading, and critical thinking are all affected by how well various components of executive function develop and work. Not only do these neurological functions impact academics, but NACD and researchers also find that they impact social skills, job skills, and the skills needed for a child or adult to navigate daily life independently. Time management, time awareness, goal setting and planning, organizational skills, social awareness, financial planning, running a household, writing a research paper, writing a paragraph, and forming thoughts into conversation are all functions that depend on this higher cognitive level referred to as working memory and executive function.” (Doman, 2016)

So what does all this have to do with anxiety? When we think of our kids, anxiety can creep up when they have too much information coming in through their senses, but not enough short-term and working memory to manipulate the information. Have you ever seen a World History textbook? If you have a smart kid who wants to do well in school, but doesn’t have well developed short-term and working memory abilities, they are very likely to get anxious just looking at the book. The pieces that allow them to manage their time with material, organize their studying, and plan how to work through the material are not where they need to be in order for that child to be successful. Now if we have that same kid with five or six classes, with similar amounts of material, imagine how much more anxiety can develop.

Many of the anxious children on our caseload, who may be pre-adolescent age and are struggling with school to the point of shutting down, have poor working memory and conceptual thought. They simply don’t have the ability, YET, to be able to perhaps even process the information coming into their brain, let alone manipulate it and problem solve, think and reason through all that is being presented to them. Let’s also take into consideration what is happening with their bodies during this time frame. They become so overloaded they shut down. With our kids that have good short-term memory but poor working memory, rather than solve a problem that they are facing, sometimes these children may ruminate on the problem itself. Rumination is simply rehashing a problem in their head over and over without having the working memory that permits them to organize their thoughts and reach a conclusion, therefore creating increased anxiety. The more developed a person’s working memory is, the more likely they are able to solve and reason through their problems.

The more a child can reason, the less likely they are to get stressed and shut down. If we look at a neurotypical 3-4-year-old, they are just learning how to reason and problem solve. If they encounter something that is stressful to them, they don’t have the working memory to process the situation and are likely to dart or hide behind their mom versus using conceptual thought to reason as to how best to approach something. The same can be true for a child who is 12 years old but has the working memory of a 3-4-year-old. The same behavior happens, only it looks more problematic because it is an immature behavioral response for a child at that age.

We also have very bright individuals on our caseload who are also anxious because of their incessant need to be the best, to be perfect, to be the straight A student. When does academic pressure, measuring kids, too much testing, and narrow competition get recognized as potentially one of the greatest causes to mental health issues in our kids? Stay tuned to next month’s article.

Reprinted by permission of The NACD Foundation, Volume 32 No. 6, 2019 ©NACD