The Sneaky Way We Set Ourselves Up For More Stress

UPDATED: April 1, 2020
PUBLISHED: April 1, 2020
The Sneaky Way We Set Ourselves Up for More Stress

Oh my gosh, today is going to be a nightmare.

Ever had this thought before you even turn off your morning alarm?

Yup, our brains are amazing in that way—we can be half asleep, cozy and safe under our sheets, yet still start imagining disasters the day might hold.

On the one hand, it can feel productive: I’m bracing myself for all the worst case scenarios, we think. But when we torpedo our days before they event start, it can actually create a rough day, according to new research.

A study by Penn State researchers published in the Journals of Gerontology: Psychological Sciences shows that anticipating stress can set us up to experience stress in our day-to-day.

The researchers gathered 240 adults for the study, and they had them answer questions in an app seven times a day for two weeks straight. The questions went something like this:

●︎ Morning: Do you expect your day to be stressful?
●︎ During the day (five times): What’s your current stress level?
●︎ Night: Do you think tomorrow will be stressful?

Then, they were given working memory tasks five times a day to test the part of our brains that helps us learn and retain info. Turns out the people who woke up thinking their day would be stressful performed worse on those tasks—even if nothing stressful actually happened during the day.

What does this mean? When we think we will be stressed, the floodgates open for stress—and it can make us less focused and more prone to mistakes throughout the day.

“When you wake up in the morning with a certain outlook for the day, in some sense the die is already cast,” says, Martin Sliwinski, Ph.D., a co-author of the study. “If you think your day is going to be stressful, you’re going to feel those effects even if nothing stressful ends up happening. That hadn’t really been shown in the research until now, and it shows the impact of how we think about the world.”

But these findings don’t just have to live in a lab—there are ways to apply them to your own busy life and curb your stress forecasting.

Here, a few tactics:

1. Notice if you’re anticipating stress.

Are you waking up stressed every morning?

Would you know if you were?

Try a little experiment and clock your attitude when you wake up every morning for a week. Keep a notebook by your bed with the question, “Do I think today will be stressful?” and record your answers for seven days.

Notice how often you’re forecasting a stressful day—even before your feet hit the floor. And if you find yourself anticipating stress, use it not as an outlook for the day but your cue to reset. “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 says.

Or, try a gratitude exercise. Studies show gratitude can help reduce stress and help us foster resilience.

2. Judge your little stressball.  

If you can’t shake the stress, ask yourself if the stress is warranted or not. A few possible tactics:

Consider the 10-10-10 rule, and ask yourself, What will be the consequences of this in 10 minutes? 10 months? And 10 years?

This idea from the mind of author Suzy Welch and her book 10-10-10 can help you take a long-term picture. Even if something is stressful in the moment, realizing in 10 months you’ll forget all about it can be strangely comforting.

Another idea is to think about what you would tell a friend who called you with this problem. Would you tell her that her stress level seems outsized for the problem? Or does it feel totally warranted?

Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes can give us the necessary distance to evaluate our issues from a bird’s-eye view.

3. Shift your mindset from noticing to acting.

When stress pops up, we tend to avoid it in a few ways: the trusty spiral-into-chaos method (love that one!), the distract-yourself-by-any-means-necessary approach (hello, Netflix binge!), or the this-isn’t-happening phase, where you think if you just ignore whatever’s going on, it’ll disappear like your favorite TV shows during the summer.

But these avoidance techniques don’t do much to ease the stressor in your life. To do that, you must move towards action. This can take a few forms. You can physically act by going for a walk or taking a quick stretch. Or, you can put your brain into action and start to create solutions.

You’re not going to solve everything right away, but even making a list of ways you can fix a problem can help you find new ways to approach what’s wrong. The necessary antidotes to stagnation, stewing and spiraling are action and movement.

4. Flex your stress-busting muscles often.

It’s widely believed that most habits require 21 days of continual use to be adopted. So if you try these exercises once—great! You’ll see that they work. But repetitive use will actually help them become like a Chrome browser constantly running in the background of your daily life—always there, always ready to help you.

While we can’t control what flies at us—work woes, relationship drama, slow walkers—we can control how we approach each day and how we respond to the stimuli that make up our daily lives. And it all starts with waking up and changing our default “today is going to be stressful” approach.

—Kara Cutruzzula

Read next: 3 Easy Ways to Lower Your Stress

This post originally appeared on Shine, an app that offers daily support for your stress & anxiety.

Photo by @alesha_macarosha/

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