Does stress affect our cognitive abilities?

At reasonable levels, stress can be a motivator and a means to excel. But you have to be able to manage in order to reap the benefits. A team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently examined the effects of anticipated stress on cognition. In concrete terms, the scientists measured whether, beginning upon waking, stressing about what might happen to us during the day had an impact on cognitive abilities.

General Adaptation Syndrome, or GAS (the scientific name for stress), was clearly identified in 1936 by Professor Hans Selye. According to the endocrinologist, GAS is a set of physiological responses the body goes through when subjected to environmental pressures. These responses are designed to mobilize the person to react quickly to the events they are facing; GAS takes place in three phases:

1) Alarm: the body faces the new situation and mobilizes forces to defend itself
2) Resistance: the body adapts to the stressful situation; its forces are mobilized and focused on reacting to the new context
3) Exhaustion: because resistance isn't unlimited, it will gradually weaken. If the stressful situation lasts too long, this phase can be very difficult.

By nature, stress is positive since it triggers the body to accommodate to environmental factors and allows it to quickly return to a safe state. Most often, when the defense mechanism is working properly, stress quickly gives way to positive feelings (the satisfaction of having overcome some "challenge").

The present study, carried out by researchers at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies and the Center for Healthy Aging, aimed to measure the effects of anticipated stress in the day ahead on cognitive abilities during that same day. Until now, little research has explored the impact of anticipating stressful events in everyday life. For two weeks, 240 adults ages 25 to 65, completed a questionnaire 7 times a day via a smartphone application. The morning and evening versions included questions designed to measure stress anticipation. During the day, participant stress levels were also evaluated. Each was also asked to carry out a task focused on spatial working memory five times per day.

What did the researchers find? Unlike evening stress, morning stress was associated with a deficit in working memory later on during the day; and this was true regardless of the person's age. In other words, morning stress about the events of the day ahead can affect our cognitive abilities. Keep in mind that working memory allows us to store and manipulate information (spatial in this experiment) for short periods of time and when performing an activity.

According to the study’s authors, these results shed light on possible interventions, such as, for example, a mobile application that would remind you to do relaxation exercises at certain times of the day or tell you which periods of the day are the most (or least) conducive to concentration, depending on your level of stress.
Source: Jinshil Hyun, Martin J Sliwinski, Joshua M Smyth. “Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed: The Effects of Stress Anticipation on Working Memory in Daily Life”, in The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, May 2018

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