Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies: a new study found that anticipating a stressful day actually make you feel as it was, even though nothing stressful ends up happening.
Waking up on the wrong side of the bead
The study shows that having the right or, conversely, the wrong mindset can have a huge impact on our cognition and daily proper functioning. Specifically, anticipating a stressor greatly affected working memory — the ability to keep information in mind in the face of distraction.
The poorer our working memory is, the less able we are to retain and learn new information. Lower working memory can make a person more prone to making mistakes, for instance. In some cases, such cognitive errors could be disastrous, like among older adults who might take the wrong pill or perform a catastrophic driving mistake.
“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events,” said Jinshil Hyun, a doctorate researcher at Penn State. “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.”
Most research has focused on the effects stressful events have on our emotions, cognition, and physiology. Little attention, however, has been directed towards studying the effects of anticipating stress, when stress itself isn’t present.
To this aim, the team recruited 240 adults of diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds.
For two weeks, each participant had to respond to seven questions which were prompted on their smartphone via a dedicated app. The first question, in the morning, was meant to determine whether they expect the day ahead to be stressful. The next five questions had to be answered throughout the day, gauging the participants’ stress level. Finally, at night they were asked whether they expected the following day to be stressful.
Each participant also completed a working memory task five times a day.
“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,” Hyun said. “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.”
From a practical point of view, the researchers propose a new app that might prompt people with various targetted messages in order to sweeten the mood or stave off trouble.
For instance, if you wake up feeling like the day is going to be stressful, the app might remind you to do some deep-breathing meditation to calm yourself down. If that doesn’t work, the app could remind you that ‘today is not a good day to drive’ (or do science).
The researchers plan on performing additional studies, this time working with wearable sensors that gather more in-depth data. Hyun and colleagues are most interested in uncovering the biological or psychological mechanisms that underlie the effects of stress on cognition.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.