What have all these symptoms got in common?
Chest pain, stomach upset, insomnia, anxiety, anger, depression, overeating, drug abuse and social withdrawal.
If you answered stress, you got it right with one word. To be more precise, each item on the list can be caused by stress. It’s a condition that can affect people’s physical health, mood and behavior in many ways.
Researchers have devoted a great deal of study to the impact of stress on cognition, but how is mental functioning affected when a person anticipates stress that hasn’t even happened yet? This has received scant attention.
So a small team from Pennsylvania State University decided to look into it…
Dreading the Worst
For their trial, 240 people aged 25 to 65, from different racial and economic backgrounds, had to respond seven times throughout the working day to questions about how stressful they felt. They communicated their responses using a smartphone app.
In the morning they were asked about their expected stress levels in the hours ahead, then five more times throughout the day, and lastly before bedtime about tomorrow’s anticipated stress.
At different points during the day they were also given tests of working memory. This is needed for concentration, and to process and retain short-term information.
The study was carried out over two weeks.
The findings were that prior to sleep, stress had no effect so long as they felt more positive by the next morning.
But if, as the study authors put it, they are “waking up on the wrong side of the bed,” they performed worse on the working memory tests.
According to a member of the research team, doctoral student Jinshil Hyun, “Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events.
“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.”
Fellow author Dr. Martin Sliwinski, director of Pennsylvania State’s Center for Healthy Aging, added, “When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast.
“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.”
He went on to say that a less efficient working memory will give a person less focus, and increase the chances of making errors at work.
In older adults who already have some degree of cognitive decline, he said this could be more serious, as they could make mistakes that “have catastrophic impacts” such as taking the wrong prescription drug or making a grave error while driving a vehicle.
How to Manage Stress
Few people can simply urge themselves to be optimistic about the coming day and make it stick when they perceive problems lie ahead. But there are strategies that make it less likely people will respond in a negative way in the first place:
- Walk 30 minutes a day, preferably in green or scenic areas
- Spend more time in social activities
- Relax with hobbies like reading or listening to music
- Enjoy a regular massage
- Learn deep breathing, meditation, tai chi or yoga
Healthy eating is also vital.
Dr. Julie Silver from Harvard Medical School suggests we can all feel more relaxed, happier, more content and less moody by eating regularly. Don’t skip meals, avoid or limit alcohol and simple carbs like cake, cookies, ice cream, potato chips and crackers, and eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.