“I woke up on the wrong side of the bed.” It’s a common complaint for a very common experience—you wake up expecting the day to be difficult, stressful and just plain bad. When it happens, it’s easy to feel that starting the day under this dark cloud will affect the whole day. But does it? According to recent research at Pennsylvania State University, the answer, unfortunately, is yes, it does. It turns out that when you wake up expecting to have a stressful day, your brain’s ability to function at full capacity is diminished all day long. But there is something you can do about it.

The Science of Grumpiness

  • Although laboratory research has explored the link between the expectation of stress—what’s known as “anticipatory stress”—and its effect on cognitive function, no one had examined that link outside the lab, in everyday life. That’s where Penn State researchers broke new ground: They equipped 240 racially and economically diverse men (34%) and women (66%), ages 25 to 65, with smartphones to get their daily, in-the-moment feedback on stress and to test their working memory—the aspect of memory that helps you learn and hold on to information even when you’re distracted—via an app in the phones.

Every day for two weeks, participants were asked upon waking up, “Overall, how stressful do you expect today will be?” Response choices ranged from “not at all stressful” all the way to “very stressful.” Over the course of the day, participants were sent five queries asking whether they had experienced anything stressful since the last query. (A stressful event was defined as “any event, even a minor one, which negatively affects you.”)

After each answer, participants completed a task that involved remembering where three red dots appeared on a grid—a measure of working memory that they completed twice in quick succession. Finally, at the end of the day before going to bed, they were asked: “Overall, how stressful do you expect tomorrow will be?”—again using a sliding scale to respond.

The results showed that morning expectations do change reality for the rest of the day. When participants started their days expecting them to be stressful, their working memory was worse throughout the day—and the greater the stress was expected to be, the worse their memory worked. The surprising twist: Participants didn’t even have to encounter anything stressful during the day for this to be true—simply anticipating in the morning that they would be stressed that day was enough, on its own, to diminish their working memory. The previous night’s expectation of a stressful next day was found to have no effect on working memory—perhaps because the time gap was larger between anticipation and the memory tasks. Age didn’t make a difference either: Anticipating a high-stress day in the morning was associated with the same reduction in memory power in both young and old.

These findings have potential high-stakes consequences: If your mind is focused on anticipating stress, the authors suggest, you may experience “attention depletion”—that is, you’ll be less likely to pay attention when other demands for your attention arise. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to imagine making an error while driving or at work, for example.

What to do: Do your best to start each day in a more positive frame of mind by saying “It’s going to be a great day.” Speaking these words helps your brain believe that it will be so—after all, it is just as open to positive as it is to negative suggestion. You can also set up reminders on your phone to start the day with some deep breathing or relaxation exercises so that maybe you can nip the problem in the bud.

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