Anxiety and memory

Your memory is like an internal team of thousands of book-searchers.  Photo by Tobias Fischer on Unsplash

Have you ever wondered why, when you have a bit of time to yourself, your mind floods you with all sorts of worries, grievances and concerns that just don’t hit you when you are busy?

It’s one of the least talked-about phenomena in memory, but one of the most important to mental health, and it governs our response to quiet time.  Without an appropriate response, we are victims of our own silence.  With an appropriate response, we can be at peace.


Your memory works on an ‘on demand’ basis.

In fact, your memory is like a library with thousands of busy book-searchers.  If you are currently trying to remember someone’s name, all the book-searchers will try to rush to appropriate shelf areas, bump into each other, and do their best to find the name.  Often, it is only when you calm down and do something else, that the book-searchers disentangle themselves enough to search elegantly, and find that name, which pops out a bit later than you had hoped.

Equally, when you are at work, all your book-searchers will be busy retrieving you bits of information from your ‘daily work’ information shelves.  It may feel comfortable, because it is known territory, and everyone knows what they are doing, and how to interact well.

However, when you are sitting in silence at home, it’s a different story.  There is no focus. Your thousands of book-searchers, who are used to rushing around finding things for you, don’t know what to do.  So they start to panic, and begin retrieving random pieces of information from all over the library.  Except that they are not quite random.  The book-searchers tend to focus on books they know you have gone to before, or have been bothered about recently.  Perhaps they will seek out memories about that person who upset you recently; or maybe they will go and fetch books from that shelf marked ‘usual worries’.


In this way, sitting in silence can, initially, feel like a storm.  Although you are sitting quietly, your memory-retrievers are still working hard, presenting you with possibly-helpful items from your worry list.

This happens because it is how you have trained your internal book-searchers.  Or rather, you have not trained them to sit still.  You have left them to their own devices; you have rushed around in your own life, expecting them to find information for you, from around your brain, at a moment’s notice.  You have never really explained to them what to do when you are at peace.  You have never really had an internal meeting of your book-searchers.

To calm the storm you experience when you are sitting quietly, you need to do what most meditators do: train your whole self to stop searching so hard.  There are two main ways to do this, what one might call the ‘active focus’ method, and the ‘passive emptiness’ method.


Given that your memory works like this, one thing you can do in quiet times, is give your mind a focus to replace your busy focus.  Good activities for this include gardening, cooking, arts and crafts, and reading.  TV is also a possibility, but may be less preferable because it doesn’t require much activity from you, and can be somewhat addictive.

At times of active focus, you are essentially giving your internal book-searchers a clear and easy set of tasks, based around a clearly-defined activity.  They will not go around picking items from your worry list, because they are just busy enough on the current task.

If you are into meditation, you can even choose, as your focus, an aspect of self-improvement, such as compassion, or a lesson in wisdom.


This is slightly more difficult, and can backfire if you are not very good at it.  But, if you can manage it, it is worth a try.

You can simply sit, with a mind of emptiness, and let the thoughts come to you.

Your intermal book-searchers will rush around the library of your mind, seeking out and bringing to you your usual spare-time worries, concerns and anxieties.  You will find yourself indulging in daydreams one minute, and imaginary arguments with others the next.

The trick is that, every time you find this happening, you let the drama fall, and return to your own mind of emptiness.

Initially, this confuses your library workers.  They are used to being busy, remember, and will rush around finding more and more stories for you to follow.  After all, they are used to getting your attention.

But, slowly, they will realise that you are not going take the books they bring.

For the first time, you may be able to sit freely with a mind of emptiness, just accepting where you are right now.

It can take a long time to achieve this, but it is worth it.  Once learned, you can take this mind of emptiness back into your daily life, and it can help you in unexpected ways.  It makes you more patient.  It makes you less prejudiced.



Your memory feeds you on demand, as though you were a library, and you were full of thousands of book-searchers.

When you are busy, your internal book-searchers have lots to do, and a clear focus.

When you are quiet, your internal book-searchers get confused, and stay busy, and may rush off to seek out your usual worries to offer you.

To combat this, you can settle on a creative activity with a gentle focus, or undertake a particular meditation.  Alternatively (although this is harder), you can just be still, let the thoughts come, and then let them fall, returning to a mind of emptiness each time.  If you can do it, this is very liberating.