Three Big Ways Anxiety Impacts Executive Functioning

We’ve discussed the importance of executive functioning in previous blogs. Executive functioning is the umbrella term for many of the skills and abilities that allow students to flourish – the mental and cognitive abilities that help us multitask, focus on the task or information at hand, plan, and remember. While there are ways to strengthen these skills, there are also things that are proven roadblocks to efficient and robust executive functioning. Anxiety is one of these roadblocks, and here are three ways it might be negatively impacting your executive functioning.


Anxiety hurts our ability to focus.

Studies have shown that people suffering with anxiety have a much harder time on tasks that require sustained attention. In fact, one of the primary symptoms of Generalized Anxiety Disorder is having a hard time concentrating, along with excessive worry, fatigue, restlessness. When it comes to academic performance, being able to focus on something for extended periods of time is critical.


Anxiety reduces how much information we can hold in our working memory.

Working memory is another skill that is extremely important within academics. Working memory is the cognitive system that helps us hold information temporarily as we are completing a task – it has been described as “a temporary sticky note in the brain.” When we’re anxious, however, that sticky note becomes smaller – or perhaps less sticky – and we have trouble retaining those small amounts of information that we need. It is hypothesized that, when our minds are filled with stress and worry, we simply have less space to hold other information.


Anxiety makes it more difficult to begin tasks.

There can be a vicious cycle between anxiety and procrastination: anxiety makes it feel nearly impossible to start a task on your to-do list, but procrastinating that task only makes your anxiety worse. Anxiety has been shown to negatively impact task initiation for a variety of different reasons, from a crippling fear of making a mistake or simply the inability to focus on the task long enough to get started.

So, what does this mean? It means that, while working with a coach to improve executive functioning can be hugely helpful, poor mental health may be holding you back from your full potential. As important as it is to work on study skills, it is even more important that you’re taking care of yourself. When you’re mindfully working to reduce your anxiety – whether that’s taking a self-care break, talking with a counselor, setting boundaries, or something else – you’re indirectly working on these critical executive functioning skills.