Savers know that chronic stress and anxiety damage bones. Now, a new study confirms that fearing stress can actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy, worsening working memory and reducing your effectiveness on the job or at home.
Since for many the holiday season is known as one of the most stressful time of the year, today we'll explore how you can replace the fear of stress with a positive attitude, to protect your bones and your brain.
A Bad Attitude Leads To Bad Memory
Worry is a non-productive emotion. Fortunately, we can train our minds to control or even eliminate it.
The challenge arises from our inclination to live in the future. Animals live in present time. The human ability to plan ahead is what gets us into trouble. We think about all we need to get done by the end of the day, or about upcoming obligations, or even social events. For most people, this anticipation creates stress.
A new study conducted at Penn State University found that thinking about potential future stressful events affects working memory. A reduced working memory (short-term memory) means you're more likely to make mistakes, which can be dangerous if you're driving, working on a complex task, or are responsible for someone else.
According to study co-author 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.”1
So if you wake up on the wrong side of the bed, already thinking about how much you have to do and wondering how you'll ever accomplish it all, you lower your ability to learn and retain information later in the day — even if the day turns out to be a comparative breeze.
Anticipating stress negatively affects your memory, a new study has found. If you fear your day will be stressful, you disrupt your working memory, which means you'll be less able to focus and more likely to make mistakes later in the day, even if the day ends up going well.
Understanding What Stress Is — And Is Not
It's important to understand the nature of stress. When you're under a deadline at work, for example, or training for a marathon, your body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol to help you meet this challenge. This is normal, and in the short-term, it's fine. However, chronic stress becomes a problem, affecting bone health and brain health.
Long-term stress leads to an excessive secretion of acidifying cortisol, throwing off your pH balance. Also, your body uses a tremendous amount of energy to produce cortisol — energy that is therefore not available for vital processes such as bone formation, along with immune, endocrine, and nervous system support.
Hans Selye, who coined the term “stress” in 1936, defined it as the body's demand for change. So you can see how stress, by definition, is not necessarily negative. How we respond to stressors (a stimulus that causes the stress response) determines whether we are actually under stress or not.
Consider this: fear and excitement are the same emotion, but what we are experiencing defines the meaning. Prepping to run that 5K might not be stressful for you at all. On the other hand, you might experience a loud party as highly stressful, whereas the same event might be experienced as joyful by someone else.
Scientist Hans Selye, who coined the term “stress,” described it as the body's demand for change. What we experience as a stressor (the event or action causing the stressful response) differs according to each individual. One person's stress is another's good time.
5 Coping Strategies to Keep Cognition Strong
If the fear of stress threatens to overwhelm you this holiday season, you can use the following coping strategies to regain your optimism, maintain good memory, and enjoy the holiday season while protecting your bones:
- Transform fearful anticipation into amusing association: find creative connections between what you need to remember to buy or do. Making up a silly, highly visual story that involves all your obligations for the day can give you a mental boost in recalling them. Bonus: it will lighten up the anxiety.
- Eat, Sleep, Exercise! This is the Savers' version of the popular book, Eat, Pray, Love. As we've explored before, getting enough sleep, eating a bone-smart diet, and engaging in bone-building exercise are crucial to boosting brain health and preventing fractures. Like creative storytelling that enhances recall, these positive actions will decrease the tendency to fret about the future. In fact, there's evidence that staying in shape improves memory.2
- Don't act your age. Another great coping strategy is to be childlike in your outlook. People who maintain their sense of wonder (and sense of humor) as they age are more resilient, able to remain positive even in difficult circumstances.3
- Choose optimism. This may sound easier said than done, especially when you're with countless obligations during the holidays. So press “pause”, observe how you're feeling, and try to convert negative thoughts or statements into positive ones. You've heard the expression, “Fake it till you make it”? This is true with just about every new habit. As you begin to accentuate the positive, both in how you act and in what you say to others, it will become your new normal.
- Root for rutin. Rutin, a flavonoid found in plant foods, is a powerhouse for both bone health and brain health, increasing bone density, preventing blood clots, relieving intraocular pressure (a boon for those with glaucoma) and playing a “neuroprotective role” against oxidative stressors.4
So make sure you consume foods that are rich in rutin, such as buckwheat, apples, figs, and citrus fruits this season, for a delicious and calming rutin boost.
Five excellent ways to keep stress at bay this holiday season include turning anticipation into association (making a creative mental picture of what you need to get done); getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet; exercising; acting childlike; choosing optimism over pessimism, and eating foods that contain the powerful flavonoid polyphenol rutin.
Keeping Your Glass Half Full
If you start your day with an optimistic outlook, you’ll protect your memory and bones, by setting the stage for a stress-free day. Stress is a call for change. By taking a proactive approach — taking good care of yourself, especially during the holiday season — you will transform worry into a positive perspective. With a glass-half-full attitude, you'll be better equipped to cope with challenges and enjoy the holidays and your life to the fullest.
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1 Jinshil Hyun, MA et al., “Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed: The Effects of Stress Anticipation on Working Memory in Daily Life”, The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, gby042, 15 May 2018. Web. https://academic.oup.com/psychsocgerontology/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/geronb/gby042/4996223?redirectedFrom=fulltext
2 Ellenbogen, Jeffrey M., et al. “Human relational memory requires time and sleep.” PNAS. 104. 18. (2007): 7723-7728. August 20, 2016. Web. https://www.pnas.org/content/104/18/7723.abstract
3 “Be Sillier For Long, Happy Life? Study Finds Key To Feeling Younger Is Acting Younger.” StudyFinds. January 4, 2018. Web: https://www.studyfinds.org/health-well-being-younger-childhood/
4 Javed, H., et al. “Rutin prevents cognitive impairments by ameliorating oxidative stress and neuroinflammation in rat model of sporadic dementia of Alzheimer type.” Neuroscience. 210. (2012): 340-352. May 15, 2016. Web. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306452212001893