UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Be optimistic, at least in the morning. Just believing your day will be stressful after you wake up can cause you to be less productive and make a day at the office even harder, a new study finds.
That’s because when you start a day off thinking about a later event that could bring about more stress, your working memory weakens, say researchers from Penn State University. Working memory, of course, controls your ability to process and retain information in the short-term and also plays a key role in concentration.
“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events,” says co-author Jinshil Hyun, a doctoral student in human development and family studies, in a university release. “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 researchers believe the findings show how stress begins well before the event that is expected to be stressful happens — which means we often stress ourselves out over things that might not even be so bad in the end. While most research has focused on how stress can affect executive functions and cognition, little work has been put into the effects of anticipating stress.
For the study, the authors tasked a diverse group of 240 adults with responding seven times a day to questions about their stress levels asked over a smartphone app. The app polled them on their expected stress level for the day in the morning, and then on their current stress levels five times during the day afterwards. Before bed, they were asked about how stressful they thought the following day would be. They were also given a task that measured their working memory during five points throughout the 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,” explains Hyun. “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.”
Results showed that those who worried about stress in the morning performed worse on the working memory quizzes later. The effect wasn’t the same, however, for people who anticipated stress the previous night, but woke up feeling more optimistic. The authors note that even if participants’ stress levels didn’t wind up being so high during the day after all, simply thinking it would earlier affected their memory.
“When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast,” says Martin Sliwinski, director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, in the release. “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.”
Sliwinski notes that the effect could be particularly tough for individuals who have important projects, meetings, or events and need their productivity to be at its best. He emphasizes how waking up with an optimistic mindset can make all the difference for an individual in numerous ways.
“A reduced working memory can make you more likely to make a mistake at work or maybe less able to focus,” he says. “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.”
If that’s easier said than done, Sliwinski says interventions can be as close as your own smartphone’s “reminder” function.
“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,” he says. “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.”
The full study was published May 15, 2018 in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.