Anxiety and Executive Function

Written by: Rebecca L. Marshall, Ph.D.
Anxiety and Executive Function

Anxiety can affect a child’s functioning in many different aspects of his or her daily life.  While mild levels of stress can actually improve performance for some activities, clinically significant anxiety is detrimental to a child’s emotional well-being.  Chronic anxiety may be manifested as persistent worrying about school performance, an unrelenting focus on the appraisal of others, and/or intense concerns about social interactions.  Frequent worrying and fear detrimentally affect the quality of children’s day-to-day lives.

While the emotional toll of clinically significant anxiety on children is widely understood, the effects of persistent rumination, fear, and worry on cognitive function are not always recognized.  Multiple lines of research have shown that clinically significant anxiety is associated with problems in executive functioning.  This domain of cognitive ability is comprised of a number of distinct yet related skills, including working memory, abstract planning, sustained attention, and mental flexibility.  Anxiety has been shown to be associated with poor performance on tasks that require a person to shift his or her attention to relevant information and to be otherwise mentally flexible.  Anxiety can also exacerbate poor attention skills, abstract reasoning abilities, and planning skills in children who are already struggling with neurological or other psychiatric disorders.

Executive functioning is essential to the successful development of numerous academic abilities.  For example, working memory is a critical component of reading comprehension and applied arithmetic.  If working memory is compromised in a child or adolescent who is struggling with significant anxiety, then his or her academic performance is likely to suffer.  Treating anxiety in children and adolescents is therefore important not only for their emotional well-being, but also for their optimal performance in school.

At the Summit Counseling Center, we provide screening assessments for emotional problems, including anxiety, that are associated with poor academic performance in children and adolescents.  We also provide comprehensive psycho-educational and neuropsychological evaluations to assess executive function and other important cognitive abilities that help children to achieve their potential in school.  Please contact Rebecca L. Marshall, Ph.D., at the Summit Counseling Center (678-893-5300) for more information.