Working memory training may reduce anxiety, according to a study published in Biological Psychology.

Your working memory is your short-term memory. It holds bits of information you need to complete cognitive tasks, such as learning and comprehension, before erasing it and making room for new information. Prior studies show working memory is a key deficit among those struggling with mental health, like depression and schizophrenia. And now study authors believe it extends to those with trait anxiety.

Study authors had 13 young students with anxiety undergo dual n-back training, which has been shown to improve the capacity users have to filter irrelevant information from working memory. Not being able to do this, something also known as attentional control, is thought to underlie reduced memory capacity in people with dysphoria — a state of unease or dissatisfaction with life. "When we have poor attentional control we become inefficient and can do badly in tasks; we can't keep worries at bay, and get trapped in cycles of overthinking that can hold us back from performing well," study co-author Nazanin Derakhshan said in a statement.

For the study, Derakhshan and colleagues assessed students' levels of attentional control using a flanker test designed to measure distractibility. The test included a stress induction and an emotional antisaccade task, which is when participants are asked to suppress the reflexive urge to look at a visual target that suddenly appears in their peripheral vision. As is the case with all dual n-back training, the test got progressively harder as students got better.

Students completed the training every day for 15 days, while a control group of students spent the same time on an easier version of the task that did not improve as students got better. Before and after the tasks, study authors measured students for anxiety and the ability to perform under stress, per BPS Research Digest. And in between training time, study authors measured student's theta/beta brain wave ratio as a neural marker of trait attentional control.

The results showed students performing traditional training had better attentional control. Specifically, Derakshan noted, "they were better at inhibiting distractors in the flanker task, especially when they were stressed." Students also had better resting-state attentional control than students in the control group.

There were changes in brain waves, too. Training students exhibited a reduced ratio of theta/beta waves while they were resting, which is to say they were super relaxed. Training students who saw the biggest improvements in working memory performance also reported greater reductions of anxiety symptoms after the training was over.

"The most important message here is that attentional control can be trained with transferrable effects on unrelated tasks measuring relevant cognitive functions such as distractibility, inhibition, and concentration in individuals suffering from high levels of anxiety," Derakshan said. "Furthermore, our findings showed that improving attentional control can reduce anxiety in individuals with an anxious predisposition."

These findings aren't only potentially huge for education, but also for clinical science. Targeting and training working memory using adaptive tasks that exercise attentional control could be a way to protect against underachievement in anxious students, and even clinical anxiety, Derakshan said.

Source: Sari BA, Koster EHW, Pourtois G, Derakshan N. Training working memory to improve attentional control in anxiety: A proof-of-principle study using behavioral and electrophysiological measures. Biological Psychology. 2015.