How to Stop Stress from Derailing Your Day

Have you ever had to recall something from a stressful experience you had the day before—only to realize everything is a blur? It’s possible that even worrying ahead of time about stressful things to come can wreak havoc on your ability to have a productive day and remember things later, researchers recently learned.

But simply checking your attitude when you wake up might be exactly what you need to stop stress from derailing you.

What’s happening in your brain

There are lots of ways stress can affect us—in the short term and the long term. One of those is your ability to turn experiences into memories.

Bearded man screaming at his computer. Stop Stress pbs rewire
This outburst brought to you by a cortisol and adrenaline cocktail.

Stress triggers your body to produce adrenaline and cortisol, chemicals that do some good in stressful situations, but also interact with your brain in ways that can prevent you from capturing memories, wrote William R. Klemm, a professor of neuroscience at Texas A&M University, for Psychology Today.

That’s why, after a stressful exam, you might not remember what you wrote down for question 13.

Starting your day on the wrong foot

New research from Penn State suggests that simply anticipating stressful experiences can have an effect on your working memory, a type of short-term memory that helps you accomplish tasks—important for getting stuff checked off your list for the day.

“When you need to remember a phone number, a shopping list or a set of instructions, you rely on what psychologists and neuroscientists refer to as working memory,” wrote New York University neuroscientist Alex Burmester for The Conversation. “It’s the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind, over brief intervals. It’s for things that are important to you in the present moment, but not 20 years from now.”

Starting off your day by fixating on how stressful it will be could diminish your working memory later in the day, researchers at Penn State found, regardless of whether the dreaded events actually occur.

The scientists discovered that by monitoring the stress levels and working memory of 240 racially and socioeconomically diverse folks for two weeks. Using a smartphone app, participants recorded their anticipated stress for the day as soon as they woke up, as well as their stress levels throughout the day.

The researchers found that higher anticipated stress was linked to lower levels of working memory later that day.

That means our bodies’ stress processes start way before we realize, before things start hitting the fan.

Woman sleeping on her laptop. Stop Stress pbs rewire
When you set your alarm the night before a stressful day, set a reminder to do something that de-stresses you, too.

“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events,” said researcher Jinshil Hyun, a Penn State doctoral student in human development and family studies, to the university. “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.”

Nobody likes to feel stressed. But how can diminished working memory actually affect you? Another researcher, Martin Sliwinski, director of Penn State’s Center for Healthy Aging, said having an impaired working memory can make mistakes more likely and focusing more difficult. That means you’ll be working slower, but also sloppier. It also means you could make a mistake while driving or in another important, non-workplace area of your life.

Protect yourself from stress

It can be easy to start panicking about your day as soon as you open your eyes. But, because your morning-time mentality is so important, set yourself up for success by working to control and soothe your stressed out thoughts when you wake up.

“When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast,” Sliwinski said to Penn State. “If you think your day is going to be stressful, you’re going to feel those effects even if nothing stressful ends up happening.”

Worried about a big presentation that’s coming up in a few hours? Meditate, watch a nature video or take a walk—whatever stress-reduction activity works for you. Take care of your mental health first thing in the morning and you will be better prepared for the rest of your day, whatever it brings.

“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.

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.