Just Thinking About Stress can Overload Your Brain and Short Circuit Your Memory

get out of bed.jpg


Ever rolled out of bed dreading the day ahead? Worse still, not getting out of bed at all.

Starting your morning by focusing on the stress to come may harm your mindset throughout the day, according to a recent study by Penn State published last month in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

Researchers found that when participants woke up feeling like the day ahead would be stressful, their working memory was greatly reduced later in the day. Working memory helps us learn and retain information even when we're distracted. Anticipating something stressful had a significant effect on working memory regardless of actual stressful events.

Jinshil Hyun, a doctoral student in human development and family studies at Penn State, says the findings suggest that the stress process begins long before a stressful event occurs.

"Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events," Hyun says.

"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."

The findings show the importance of a person's mindset first thing in the morning, before anything stressful has happened yet. So essentially, when you wake up in the morning with a negative outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast.

Researchers agreed that this hadn't really shown up in previous research until now, and it shows the impact of how we think about the world.

The results open the door for possible interventions that can help people predict when their cognition may not be optimal.

Penn State is anticipates working on additional studies that will use wearable sensors to gather even more in-depth data on the effect of stress on participants' physiological states. Hyun adds that she's also interested in future studies that can help uncover possible psychological or biological mechanisms behind how stress affects cognition.