Stress Can Impact Your Memory Even If You're Just Thinking About It, According To A New Study

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Stress is an inevitable part of life, and something that we all grapple with on a regular basis. And while some stress can be beneficial for performance and motivation at times, chronic and negative stress takes some skill to manage in order to avoid the negative health outcomes that can come with it. According to a new study published in the Journals of Gerontology, taking time to set up a healthy mindset each morning — free of stress — is super important. Researchers found that by waking up and anticipating that the day’s events would be stressful, participants showed less memory capacity; meaning that waking up and thinking about stressful things can impact your memory and cognitive function throughout the day.

According to the study’s authors, the aim of this research was to examine the relationship between stress and cognitive function. Results showed that anticipating a stressful day upon waking is more detrimental even than ruminating on the coming day’s challenges the night before. Waking up and anticipating stress means that working memory suffers throughout the day, as does the ability to learn new things and process information. While our ability to anticipate challenges and stressors gives us time to prepare for them, this function also has some significant drawbacks.

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Study author Jinshil Hyun, a doctoral student in human development at Pennsylvania State University, told ScienceAlert that “Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events.” But Hyun goes on to say that, while this function can serve us well in certain ways, it can also impair our memory function, regardless “of whether the stressful events actually happen or not.” Meaning that even if a potentially stressful event does not occur, our anticipation that it might can negatively impact our working memory abilities.

Study coauthor Dr. Martin Sliwinski, director for the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State, told ScienceAlert that working memory is important for many functions throughout our day. “A reduced working memory can make you more likely to make a mistake at work or maybe less able to focus.” Sliwinski also notes that impairments in working memory can be especially harmful for older adults, as making driving errors or mixing up a medication schedule can have potentially dire consequences — especially for seniors who already show symptoms of cognitive decline.

Sliwinski stresses that the study’s findings show that setting up a healthy mindset in the morning is key to optimizing memory and cognitive function throughout the day, according to ScienceAlert. “If you think your day is going to be stressful, you’re going to feel those effects even if nothing stressful ends up happening.” This is the first study of its kind to examine the effects of anticipating stress or negative events that haven’t happened yet, and Sliwinski further notes that this data “hadn’t really been shown in the research until now, and it shows the impact of how we think about the world.” The study’s authors hope that this research will spark additional studies that can help further shed light on how stress affects our health and cognitive abilities.

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In order to counter the impact of anticipating negative events and stressors, Sliwinski suggests that preparing for a potentially stressful day with deep breathing exercises first thing in the morning can definitely help. And the Pick The Brain blog recommends stress-reducing exercises like Tai Chi and meditation in order to heal the effects of stress in the brain, and improve memory.

While the effects of stress on our brain health and memory can be serious, remember that there’s a lot you can do to manage that impact — so whatever you do, don’t stress about your stress. A yoga class, meditation practice, or even a simple notification on your phone reminding you to place your attention on your breath and breathe deeply for a few minutes, can go a long way in keeping your memory sharp and your cognitive health on point.