Difficulty Thinking Anxiety Symptoms

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated May 18, 2021

Difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms description:

Common descriptions of the difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms include:

  • You have difficulty thinking, forming thoughts, concentrating, and/or remembering. This difficulty thinking seems more pronounced that usual.
  • You find that you are more easily distracted than usual.
  • You are having an usually difficult time putting your thoughts together or expressing them.
  • You find your concentration isn’t as good as it normally is.
  • You might also find your thinking feels like it is muddled and impaired. Some people describe this symptom as being “foggy-headed.” It also might seem as though your thoughts are elusive and things that you once knew seem hard to comprehend or recall.
  • You might also find that normal intellectual tasks seem much more difficult than usual.
  • You might also find it hard to focus and concentrate, that you are more forgetful (forget things that you normally wouldn’t), or that you have difficulty focusing on and carrying on conversations.
  • You might also start something and uncharacteristically forget what you were doing or what you wanted to do.
  • You might also have much more difficulty remembering where you placed things, who you just called, what you just talked about, what you are talking about, or what you were looking for or thinking about.
  • You uncharacteristically have difficulty focusing on or remembering what you just ate, phone numbers, names, or things you recently did.
  • It also may seem like you can maintain your focus and that you have a million thoughts going on at the same time all demanding your attention.

These difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms can come and go rarely, occur frequently, or persist indefinitely. For example, you may have difficulty thinking once in a while and not that often, have it off and on, or have difficulty thinking all the time.

These difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms may precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety sensations and symptoms, or occur by itself.

These difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and elevated stress, or occur ‘out of the blue’ and for no apparent reason.

These difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves, where they are strong one moment and ease off the next.

These difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms can change from day to day, and/or from moment to moment.

All of the above combinations and variations are common.

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What causes difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms?

There are many reasons why anxiety can cause difficulty thinking symptoms. Two of the most common include:

1. The stress response

Behaving anxiously activates the stress response. The stress response immediately causes specific physiological, psychological, and emotional changes in the body that enhance the body's ability to deal with a threat - to either fight with or flee from it - which is the reason the stress response is often referred to as the fight or flight response.[1][2]

Part of the stress response changes include changing how the brain functions so that areas of the brain more critical for survival are enhanced and those less critical are suppressed. For example, the amygdala (the fear center of the brain) becomes more active and the cortex (the rationalization areas of the brain) becomes suppressed. This change makes us more acutely aware of and reactive to danger but also reduces our ability to think clearly. A reduced ability to think clearly can seem like we are having difficulty thinking.

2. Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can recover relatively quickly from the physiological, psychological, and emotional changes the stress response brings about. When stress responses occur too frequently, however, the body has a more difficult time recovering, which can cause it to remain in a state of semi stress response readiness. We call this state "stress-response hyperstimulation" since stress hormones are stimulants.

When the body becomes hyperstimulated, it can exhibit similar sensations and symptoms to that of an active stress response.[3][4] Having difficulty thinking is a common indication of hyperstimulation, such as that from overly apprehensive behavior.

There are many more reasons why anxiety can cause difficulty thinking. We describe the rest in Chapter 9 in the Recovery Support area of our website.

Nevertheless, since an active stress response and/or stress is the cause of difficulty thinking, this symptom needn’t be a cause for concern. It’s harmless in itself and is just an indication that the body is under stress or overly stressed.

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How to get rid of the difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms?

When difficulty thinking is caused by apprehensive behavior and the accompanying stress response changes, calming yourself down will bring an end to the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this difficulty thinking anxiety symptom should subside.

Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When difficulty thinking is caused by hyperstimulation, it can take a lot longer for the body to recover, and to the point of where this symptom is eliminated.

Nevertheless, when the body has recovered, this anxiety symptom will subside. Therefore, again, this symptom needn’t be a cause for concern.

You can speed up the recovery process by reducing your stress, practicing relaxed breathing, increasing your rest and relaxation, and not worrying about this symptom. Sure, difficulty thinking can be unsettling and even bothersome. But again, when your body has recovered from the stress response or hyperstimulation, this symptom completely disappears.

If you are having difficulty not worrying about the difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms, you may want to connect with one of our recommended anxiety disorder therapists. Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to overcome worry and what seems like unmanageable anxiety.

For a more detailed explanation about anxiety symptoms including this one, why symptoms can persist long after the stress response has ended, common barriers to recovery and symptom elimination, and more recovery strategies and tips, we have many chapters that address this information in the Recovery Support area of our website.

The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including difficulty thinking anxiety symptoms.


1. Selye, H. (1956). The stress of life. New York, NY, US: McGraw-Hill.

2. Folk, Jim and Folk, Marilyn. “The Stress Response And Anxiety Symptoms.” anxietycentre.com, August 2019.

3. Hannibal, Kara E., and Mark D. Bishop. “Chronic Stress, Cortisol Dysfunction, and Pain: A Psychoneuroendocrine Rationale for Stress Management in Pain Rehabilitation.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, Dec. 2014.

4. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.