A recent study from Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging has shown that when people think about their day being stressful in the morning, before it even starts, they have negative impacts on their working memories. With a reduction in working memory people may be more prone to make mistakes as they do their work or studying, they may have a more difficult time focusing on tasks or conversations, and these can be amplified as we age and our cognitive performance levels naturally decline.
Researchers gathered 240 adults from diverse ethnic, social, and financial backgrounds. The study was 2 weeks in length and each day the participants responded to alerts on a smartphone application 7 times. The first was in the morning and asked whether they expected their day to be stressful, 5 more alerts spread throughout the day asked about their levels of stress at that time, and then at night they were asked about the next day’s anticipated stress level (Penn State, 2018).
The people in the study were also given 5 working memory tasks spread throughout their days. Their performance was then compared to their levels of anticipated and actual stress as they had reported (Penn State, 2018).
What they found was that if people anticipated stress in the morning, they performed worse on the working memory tasks that day. Interestingly, there was no significant correlation with anticipating a stressful day the night before and the next day’s performance (Penn State, 2018).
This study is useful in that it shows more real-time data for anticipated stress levels and how they can impact our daily lives. Perhaps people can take a proactive approach if they realize that they are anticipating stress that day and do some activities or exercises to help lower that perceived stress level or increase cognition.
Some ideas that the researches floated included smart phone apps that not only help you monitor and log anticipated and actual stress levels but also give you reminders to meditate, do some breathing exercises, or something similar at the start of your day to improve your outlook.
This study can be especially helpful for the aging. If we realize that our performance of cognitive tasks that day may not be the best we could avoid dangerous situations like driving or setting up medications for the week.
We may seek out a second pair of eyes or hands to complete daily chores. This may be especially true for those of us with chronic illnesses that already take a hit to working memory or deal with “brain fog.” An app on a smartphone may even be able to take the data you enter about anticipated stress levels and send you an alert that today you may not want to drive or something similar.
While the study was partially limited in that it was a rather small sample-size, it did produce significant findings. As we know, there are several things that can affect working memory, such as sleep quantity and quality, physical and mental health, and stress levels. It makes sense that anticipated stress levels would also affect working memory.
By incorporating stress-management techniques, people who are more aware of their anticipated stress levels may be able to manage their daily activities more safely and in healthy ways. They could work with therapists or coaches to learn problem-focused coping techniques that really treat the cause of the stress and don’t focus on the feeling itself. I think that this study has opened some very promising avenues of using technology to help in this regard.
I am going to challenge myself to record my anticipated stress levels each day for the next week, I’m honestly not aware of what mine are. I think it will be interesting to see how I can then use that information.
My goal is to increase my ability to mitigate my anticipated stress levels and see if I can find some great strategies, whether it’s an app on my phone, or a plain old written journal.
What about you? Do you see where anticipated stress levels are playing havoc on your cognition? Let me know of social media!
Penn State. (2018). Expecting a stressful day may lower cognitive abilities throughout the day. The Journals of Gerontology: Series B. Retrieved from Here.