Have you ever woken up and dreaded the day ahead so strongly that it feels impossible for things to actually go well? New research from Pennsylvania State University suggests that this phenomenon is not in your head; or rather, it is, and that’s precisely why it’s real.
As described in the Journal of Gerontology, a two-week study of 240 diverse adults showed that experiencing stress first thing in the morning about activities to come may impair our working memory – the short-term memory that allows us to complete tasks by juggling currently relevant info, like an address or shopping list – over the subsequent day.
“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events,” lead author Jinshil Hyun said in a statement. “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.”
Many laboratory experiments have proven that anticipatory anxiety can reduce the brain’s ability to make decisions, maintain attention, hold on to information, and make moral judgments. However, investigations focusing on the real-world effects of stress have been scarce because researchers can’t follow people around all day asking them to rate their stress levels and complete cognitive tests.
But Hyun and his co-authors, Drs Martin Sliwinski and Joshua Smyth, made the clever realization that smartphones can now do just that. To take a closer look at the impact of anticipatory stress on working memory (WM) during everyday situations, the trio used a special app to survey their subjects about sleep quality and level of anticipation about the day ahead upon waking. At five quasi-random intervals throughout the day, spaced about 2.5 hours apart, the app would issue an alert signaling them to answer questions about their current activities and psychological state then complete a cognitive task that assesses WM. In the evening, participants filled out a separate survey about anticipatory stress for the next day.
Their analysis revealed that stress upon waking was strongly associated with more errors on WM tests taken throughout the same day across subjects of all ages (25 to 65 years).
“Importantly, the effect of stress anticipation was over and above the effect of stressful events reported to have occurred,” they wrote, “indicating that anticipatory processes can produce effects on functioning independent of the presence of an external stressor.”
Anxiety at night was not significantly associated with working memory scores.
Dr Sliwinski believes the results could help guide development of interventions that help people maximize their cognitive ability during periods of morning dread – something that any overworked person is likely to experience.
“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,” Sliwinski said. “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.”
He notes that the team has already initiated follow-up studies that will evaluate physiological manifestations of daily stress by having subjects wear biosensor devices.