In summary, it seems likely that anxious individuals have a disproportionate number of threatening events represented in their memory due to a bias in interpreting ambiguous events in a threatening way. As a consequence, an anxious individual's cognitive representation of the world may be as an unduly dangerous place, and this could serve to intensify their anxious mood state. However, anxious individuals sometimes are no better than nonanxious individuals at remembering unambiguously threatening information. Indeed, anxious patients sometimes have greater difficulty in retrieving such information, possibly due to avoidance of elaborate processing. This would appear to be consistent with the function of anxiety, which is to detect threat in the environment in order to take immediate appropriate action (e.g., if one is just about to be run over by a bus, it is not adaptive to engage in elaborate processing of its number).
Although representations of threat in memory are not necessarily more retrievable (i.e., no explicit memory bias in anxiety), such representations do seem to be more accessible (i.e., an implicit memory bias). Once activated (in a study phase), threat information is subsequently more likely to come to mind in anxious individuals. This increased accessibility of threat information in memory may explain the presence of persistent and recurrent anxiety-related thoughts (i.e., worry), which are not only a defining feature of generalized anxiety disorder, but which may also serve to maintain anxious mood state. Whereas this formulation is speculative, it seems clear that anxiety does not have a uniform effect on all aspects of processing of anxiety-related stimuli as assumed by Bower ( 1981) and by Beck and Emery ( 1985). Thus, in order to develop a comprehensive theory of anxiety, it is essential to establish the precise loci of anxiety-related biases within memorial processes.
Much of the research discussed in this chapter was funded by the Wellcome Foundation, London, England.
Barkelett F. C. ( 1932). "Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beck A. T. ( 1976). "Cognitive therapy and the emotional disorders". New York: International Universities Press.