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Expecting a stressful day actually makes the day more difficult

Researchers at Penn State are reporting that anticipating a stressful day can actually make your mindset worse. The experts say that waking up with expectations of a stressful day can take its toll on the brain’s working memory.

Despite any distractions that may arise, working memory helps us learn and retain information. This ability was found to be lower among individuals that felt stress in the beginning of the day, regardless of the reality of stressful situations.

Study co-author Jinshil Hyun is a doctoral student in Human Development and Family Studies.

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

Martin Sliwinski, the director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, said that working memory can affect many aspects of a person’s day. Sliwinski explained that lower working memory can have a negative impact on daily life, particularly among older adults who already experience cognitive decline.

“A reduced working memory can make you more likely to make a mistake at work or maybe less able to focus,” said Sliwinski. “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.”

The investigation was focused on 240 racially and economically diverse adults over course of two weeks.

The individuals were prompted seven times a day to respond to questions about whether they expected their day to be stressful, current stress levels, and whether they thought the next day would be stressful. In addition, the participants completed working memory tasks five times per 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,” said 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.”

The study revealed that, when people anticipated stress more in the morning, they had a  poorer working memory later in the day. The anticipation of stress in the evening, however, was not associated with poorer working memory.

Sliwinski said that the findings demonstrate the importance of a person’s mindset first thing in the morning, before anything stressful has happened yet.

“When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast,” said Sliwinski. “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.”

According to the study authors, the research has implications for treatment that could help people predict when they may not be cognitively functioning at their full potential.

“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,” said Sliwinski. “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 research is published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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