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Expectations of stress can impact cognitive performance

Wednesday 4th July 2018
People who expect stressful conditions during their day are more likely to find their working memory impacted, according to new research.
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A new study has indicated that people who are expecting to be stressed out on a given day are more likely to experience reduced cognitive performance, regardless of the actual events of the day in question.

Research from Penn State University analysed 240 adults over two weeks, with an app tracking whether they expected their day to be stressful and how stressed they were over the course of the day itself. They were also asked to complete tests to assess their working memory, a mental function that helps people learn and retain information even when distracted.

It was found that greater stress anticipation in the morning was associated with poorer working memory later in the day, suggesting that people's mindset before they start their day can have a significant impact on their mental performance and wellbeing for the rest of the day.

Jinshil Hyun, a doctoral student in human development and family studies at the university, said: "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."

The team is now working on additional studies that will use wearable sensors to gather more in-depth data on the effect of stress on participants' physiological states, with the hope of uncovering possible psychological or biological mechanisms that can explain how stress affects cognition.

It also suggests that mental wellbeing tasks, such as deep breathing and meditation, could be recommended for people who are able to predict the likelihood of poor cognitive performance during a given day.

Written by Angela Newbury

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