Anxiety, Depression, and Academic Performance: The Role of Working Memory Capacity

Nicole Elbaz-Deckel and Karina Agadzhanyan 

It may come as no surprise that experiencing feelings of sadness and anxiousness are an inevitable part of adulthood, and perhaps even more so in stages of early adulthood when an individual endures a multitude of changes as their professional life begins to take off. In fact, a 2020 report from the American Psychological Association deemed university-aged students, typically 18-23 years old, as the most vulnerable group of all those surveyed, reporting high levels of stress and depressive symptoms (Kibbey et al., 2021). While occasional anxious or depressive feelings are characterized as having a sudden onset and a short course, chronic (long-term) anxiety and depression include symptoms that are persistent and excessive. Considering the prevalence of anxiety and depression among students, in the present article we explore how long-term states of anxiety and depression affect academic performance.

States of anxiety and depression may be independently present within an individual, yet they often occur together seeing as the two are highly comorbid disorders (Ladouceur et al., 2005). Living with an anxiety or depressive disorder can influence human function in a variety of ways, both physically and psychologically, including cognitive function. Physically, such disorders may alter digestion, sleep patterns, and the usual energy level of an individual. Psychological responses brought on by such disorders may include excess rumination and overwhelming feelings of stress or sadness (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022). While individuals may recognize the influence of these disorders on their daily life, it may not be as easy to recognize the underlying effect of anxiety and depression on cognitive functioning, such as impairments of attention, memory, information-processing, or decision-making skills (Cartreine, 2016). 

One prominent aspect of successful cognitive functioning is the efficient utilization of working memory capacity (WMC). Working memory is a limited-capacity system responsible for maintaining information to guide future behavior (Baddeley, 2012). In other words, working memory is the capacity of individuals to selectively control their attention to avoid interference or distraction (Engle et al., 1999). The use of working memory occurs daily in tasks, such as keeping your friend’s address in mind while being given directions to their house or calculating the total bill of your groceries as you shop. Studies have shown that external factors, such as interference can negatively impact participants’ ability to maintain task-relevant information by suppressing irreverent information (Logie et al., 1996). Interference occurs when unwanted information currently present in working memory (i.e., temporary storage of the information not needed for the current task) is getting in the way of the efficient encoding, processing, and updating of new information.

In laboratory settings, studies have assessed whether the presence of anxiety and depression affect interference from irrelevant information and the skill of updating working memory, or in other words, the ability to free up space for new information. The modified Sternberg task has been used to assess such cognitive function in participants with depression (Joormann & Gotlib, 2008). During the task, participants completed a series of trials where they were simultaneously presented with two lists of three words (one red-colored list and one blue-colored list) and are instructed to learn as many words as possible. Each of the two lists consisted of both negative (e.g., fever, mold, debt) and positive words (e.g., acceptance, affection, palace) which aimed to assess participants’ ability to ignore irrelevant negative information (Bradley & Lang, 1999). Participants were then presented with either a red or blue frame indicating which of the two lists (red or blue) to focus on for a later test (relevant list). Lastly, participants were shown a single word in either a red or blue frame and had to decide whether the black word came from the relevantly prompted list. Results revealed that a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder increases the likelihood of irrelevant negative information interfering with the updating of working memory. Further, they found that more self-reported rumination was related to more difficulty with removing irrelevant negative material from working memory. They posit that this interference of irrelevant negative material can come in the form of rumination of sad or irrational beliefs, depressing environmental stimuli, or a variety of other triggering external and internal factors. However, regardless of the interference source, this further solidifies the idea that depression affects working memory.

The link between working memory and anxiety and depressive disorders can be studied alongside working memory’s influence on academic performance. Such influence was discovered by the fact that there is a high correlation between verbal and visuospatial working memory abilities and academic performances (Pascoe et al., 2018). Anxiety and depression influence academic performance indirectly through working memory capacity such that higher levels of anxiety and depression were associated with lower academic performance (Owens et al., 2012; Yoon et al., 2014). In other words, anxiety and depression predicted more deficits in focus and concentration (working memory abilities), which then led to lower academic performance.

Individuals with high levels of anxiety or depression, experience the recurrence of negative thoughts and difficulty eliminating them, which may impair the functioning of cognitive inhibitory mechanisms. Since working memory is a limited-capacity storage system, when new information is encountered, mental efforts are made to store it by either eliminating old information or pushing it into long-term memory. If such elimination does not occur, new information cannot be updated (Cowan, 2010). The use of cognitive inhibition – one’s own capacity to remove irrelevant information from memory storage (Baddeley, 1996) and focus on important information relevant to a current task – is necessary for updating working memory’s internal contents to assure efficient use and function. Without the efficient use of cognitive inhibitory mechanisms, an unnecessary load of information may occupy and overload working memory capacity, which can then hinder efficient functionality (Joormann & Gotlib, 2008). Therefore, if working memory is not being efficiently used, then academic performance, which heavily relies on working memory may be inhibited. 

Studies concerning anxiety and depression and academic performance as linked to working memory have found that increased levels of baseline anxiety and diagnosed depression are associated with lower academic performance, and are linked through working memory (Owens et al., 2012). School children, aged 12-13, were assessed via self-reported scales as either having baseline anxiety, major depressive disorder, or neither of the two disorders. Further, individual levels of test worry were assessed via a self-report questionnaire. To measure academic performance, a student’s raw scores on their mathematics, language, and science standardized tests were collected and analyzed. The findings showed a significant negative correlation between anxiety or depressive disorder and academic performance such that higher levels of anxiety or depression relate to lower academic performance as assessed via standardized tests. Furthermore, children in this study were more likely to experience lower academic performance due to higher test anxiety if they also had a diagnosed anxiety or depressive disorder.

A second study was conducted to assess working memory as a mediator between anxiety and depressive disorders and academic performance (Owens et al., 2012). Specifically, 12- and 13-year-old school children underwent various task assessments, such as digit span and spatial span tests to measure working memory. Results revealed that children with higher levels of anxiety and depression performed worse on working memory tasks, which was related to lower academic performance (as measured by standardized test scores, spelling, and math assessments). 


The prevalence of anxious and depressive feelings among college students sparks the question of whether or not anxiety and depression affect academic performance throughout an individual’s educational years. Such anxiety, depressive, and comorbid disorders have been linked to working memory efficiency, which have further been linked to academic performance. It has been found that in school children, the influence anxiety or depression on academic performance is mediated by working memory (Owens et al., 2012). Future studies should go on and explore this relationship in college students and older adult learners. Altogether, considering long-term states of such disorders, impaired use of cognitive inhibitory mechanisms appears to hinder the efficient functionality of working memory due to the hindered ability to remove irrelevant material from working memory, which as a result, has a negative effect on academic performance.



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