Here’s why you might ‘black out’ when you’re anxious

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Different ways our bodies react to anxiety
WATCH: Different ways our bodies react to anxiety – May 9, 2019

It happens to the best of us.

During a job interview or a first date, you’re so nervous it’s hard to think. And afterwards, when someone asks you how it went, you genuinely can’t remember.

It might feel like you’re losing your memory, but according to Dr. Ira Fischler, this “blackout” is probably not a loss at all. It’s more likely that you didn’t even make the memory in the first place.

Fischler is an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in cognition, learning and memory.

“When memories for specific emotionally-laden events appear to be lost, it’s most often because our attention during the event was not on the interaction itself,” he told Global News.

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Instead, it’s common for a person to focus on how they are presenting themselves or on their internal emotional state during the interaction — especially during stress-inducing moments.

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This would explain why some people struggle to recall the questions asked during a job interview, for example.

They’re instead focused on how they’re presenting to the employer in the moment.

According to Fischler, this lapse in memory — commonly called “weapon focus” in the eyewitness memory field — can be a major issue for criminal cases.

“If you’re being robbed, you may be focused on the gun (or the danger you’re in) rather than the dress or face of the perpetrator,” he said.

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“In these cases, the critical info you’re trying to recall was never ‘stored’ in the first place.”

Many people can probably relate to meeting someone new and immediately forgetting their name. Fischler says that is a perfect example of “weapon focus.”

“We’re not paying attention to [the name] and [we] are unlikely to give it that little bit of rehearsal that will make it memorable later,” he said, which explains why the name is “forgotten” within seconds.

How the brain works

“Our brain starts acting certain ways as a result of trauma and anxiety,” said Laura Bloom.

She works as a psychotherapist and social worker who specializes in anxiety and neuro-psycho education.

When we’re in a situation that causes nervousness or anxiety, a “fight or flight” reaction is triggered, which sends certain hormones out into the body.

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It can cause several side effects, like feeling “light-headed and dizzy,” and it can affect “the way our brain remembers situations that we’ve been in,” said Bloom.

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She thinks of the hippocampus (the part of the brain responsible for memory) as the brain’s library and each memory as a card with all the information about what happened on it.

“When we have something [scary] happen, the experience of trauma [means] that our brain doesn’t necessarily keep all of the details properly,” she said.
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Strong feelings of anxiety can cause the information to be saved incorrectly, which can in turn feel like a blank space in your memory.

However, there’s still a debate among psychologists about whether your brain “represses” the memory or if there wasn’t any memory created in the first place.

“Research in animals and humans suggests that on balance, heightened emotion or arousal will tend to improve — rather than impair — recall of the event,” Fischler said.

“This can occur both because of increased attention to the experience (a cognitive level effect) and the release of certain ‘stress’ hormones… that appear to enhance the ‘consolidation’ of memories.”

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“Consolidation” as the transformation of an event from a short-term to a more stable, long-term memory, says Fischler.

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Memory loss is real, but in this situation, it’s more likely that you can’t remember something because there was a problem with how you experienced the event — such as with “weapon focus.”

Other ways your body could respond to anxiety

According to Jim Folk, founder and president of based in Calgary, our bodies’ sympathetic nervous systems respond to the stressful thoughts or moods we may have, including anger, worry or fear.

“Rapid heart rate is one of the common ones because stimulus gets the heart going,” he said.

“People can experience skipped beats when the heart is sort of jolted by the stress response.”

Demian Brown, a Toronto-based psychotherapist and registered clinical social worker, previously told Global News twitching in the face and body is a common symptom of anxiety.

“When you’re under stress, physiological things start to happen to the body,” Brown said. “Your adrenaline and noradrenaline levels increase as if your body is preparing for some kind of danger.”

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Brown added this type of response increases your muscle tone and prepares your body for what is perceived to come its way.

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An urge to pee, sweating, throat tightening, diarrhea and constipation are just some of the side effects stress can have on the body, though it will vary from person to person.

How to deal

If it seems like you constantly suffer from “blackouts,” it could be that you’re putting yourself in too many stressful situations.

This can have long-term impacts on your brain health.

A recent study by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute determined a clear link between high levels of cortisol, a hormone released during periods of stress, and memory loss.

Researchers surveyed more than 2,000 people with no signs of dementia and gave them various psychological exams to measure cognitive ability.

“Higher levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, seem to predict brain function, brain size and performance on cognitive tests,” said study author Dr. Sudha Seshadri in an interview with CNN.

“We found memory loss and brain shrinkage in relatively young people long before any symptoms could be seen,” he added.

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When confronting anxiety, Bloom says her motto is “rewire your mood, rewire your life.”

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For her, it’s crucial that you replace the fight or flight response with a calmer, healthier approach to situations that aren’t actually life-threatening.

The first step to doing that is understanding what triggers your fight or flight response.

“First, we’ll work to identify those beliefs and coping strategies [the patient] grew up with or which have had influence throughout their lives. Why are they feeling that way? What’s it coming from?” she said.

Bloom also recommends working with a mental health professional to learn calming techniques.

“Doing things like deep breathing really helps to calm your nervous system down after those fight or flight reactions,” she said.

She says deep breathing, or breathing from your diaphragm, can slow down your system and by extension, your panicked reaction.

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Laughter, grounding statements and visualization are other techniques which can also slow down the fight or flight response.

The goal is to “activate the logical brain instead of the fear-driven brain,” said Bloom. “That way, your brain’s not acting for you… [and] you can figure things out logically.”

— With files from Laura Hensley & Arti Patel

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