Anticipating stress messes with your memory, new research finds.
People who woke up feeling the day would be stressful had worse memory later on, even if the stress did not materialise.
Mr Jinshil Hyun, the study’s first author, said:
“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events.
But this study suggests that this ability can also be harmful to your daily memory function, independent of whether the stressful events actually happen or not.”
Working memory was the type affected by anticipating stress.
Dr Martin Sliwinski, study co-author, explained its function:
“A reduced working memory can make you more likely to make a mistake at work or maybe less able to focus.
Also, looking at this research in the context of healthy aging, there are certain high stakes cognitive errors that older adults can make.
Taking the wrong pill or making a mistake while driving can all have catastrophic impacts.”
For the study, 240 people were followed over two weeks to measure their stress levels and working memory ability.
Mr Hyun said:
“Having the participants log their stress and cognition as they went about their day let us get a snapshot of how these processes work in the context of real, everyday life.
We were able to gather data throughout the day over a longer period of time, instead of just a few points in time in a lab.”
The more people anticipated stress, the worse their memory was.
Dr Sliwinski said:
“When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast.
If you think your day is going to be stressful, you’re going to feel those effects even if nothing stressful ends up happening.
That hadn’t really been shown in the research until now, and it shows the impact of how we think about the world.”
One option would be to fight the damaging effects of anticipating stress, Dr Sliwinski said:
“If you wake up and feel like the day is going to be stressful, maybe your phone can remind you to do some deep breathing relaxation before you start your day.
Or if your cognition is at a place where you might make a mistake, maybe you can get a message that says now might not be the best time to go for a drive.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the The Journals of Gerontology: Series B (Hyun et al., 2018).