Everybody gets stressed — in the UK alone, £7bn is lost a year to work days taken off because people feel overwhelmed. But there’s a way to handle stress that only takes you 14 seconds.
There are hundreds if not thousands of books about handling stress. And many of them actually induce stress whilst you read them! How much resilience you need to stress depends mainly on how much stress you have in your life, and how draining your day to day. Whilst there are lots of approaches to managing stress, they tend to require training (like breathing techniques or mindfulness meditation) or dedicated, set-aside time (like yoga or running), and don’t always help you in the moment. But according to a new study out of Rutgers University, all you need is a handful of happy memories.
In their first experiment, researchers Mauricio Delgado and Megan Speer asked 134 participants to plunge their hands into icy water. Then, one group spent 14 seconds recalling an emotionally neutral experience — like packing for a trip — while the other recalled a positive experience — like visiting Disneyland.
The positive reminiscence group not only felt better after their freezing ice bath, but they also had just 15 percent of the spike in cortisol, a hormone the body releases when perceiving stress, that the control group had.
A follow-up brain imaging experiment helped reveal why this is. The researchers found that recalling happy memories was associated with greater activity in the prefrontal regions of the brain. These are areas that are also active when people control their attention and reappraise their emotional states, a process that research indicates can help people handle stress without developing depression. While this is just one study, it’s further proof that your memories don’t just form a mental scrapbook; they’re tools you can use to become more resilient.
The use of positive memories is an excellent skill to develop to help you prepare for stressful situations. Similar to professional athletes who visualise winning the race or scoring a goal, recalling positive emotions before potentially stressful events actually changes your biochemistry and means that you head in to that phone call or meeting already wired for success.
Speer, M., Delgado, M., Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. 2017. Nature Human Behaviour. Link here.