by Sharon Binoy
Stress is not a rare occurrence on a college campus, but it has the potential to affect the mental and physical health of even the most resilient among us. Whether it’s an upcoming deadline or a bad encounter, periodic stressors can haunt us all.
Three out of four college students are stressed, according to a 2018 study by psychologist Cindy Liu on the mental health of college students from the medical journal Depression and Anxiety. Stress also was found to significantly impact the prevalence of suicidal thoughts, depression, and anxiety among the students. Moreover, chronic stress takes a toll on the body in the form of headaches, upset stomach, insomnia, and even fertility problems.
Coping with stress is clearly key to maintaining our health and wellbeing, regardless of demographic. Studies have found that emotional regulation strategies such as reappraisal can help us lessen the impact of inevitable stressors. Practicing cognitive reappraisal involves positively reframing the situation in our minds, however, this approach often fails to actually reduce our body’s natural response to stress. This is mainly due to the fact that acute stress impairs neural circuits involved in emotional regulation. So is there a better way to combat stress?
A recent study by Megan Speer and Mauricio Delgado published in Nature Human Behaviour has found a simple alternative to coping with stress: reminiscing positive memories. This study shows that something as simple as recalling a happy memory could have profound effects on reducing our levels of cortisol, the body’s stress hormone. In this case, reminiscing of a past positive memory is distinct from cognitive reappraisal because cognitive reappraisal consists of assessing the current situation through a new perspective. Conversely, positive reminiscence involves recall of a past positive memory to buffer the stress caused by the current situation.
Speer and Delgado found that connectivities in the brain’s prefrontal cortex and corticostriatal regions are enhanced during positive memory recall after a stressful event. The corticostriatal regions are associated with reward processing, whereas the prefrontal cortex helps regulate our emotions, which is important, especially during a stressful situation. Imagine you find yourself having to speak in front of a large audience or taking a difficult test; you wouldn’t want the prefrontal cortex region to break down and let your nerves get the better of you!
To study the role of positive memory recall on stress, Speer and Delgado put 134 healthy adults averaging around 20 years of age in a “stressful situation”; they were asked to plunge their hands into ice cold water while researchers watched and videotaped them. Afterwards, one group reminisced about neutral memories (like packing for a trip) while another group recalled happy memories (such as visiting Disneyland). Then, their cortisol levels were measured to compare their biological stress levels. To compare activity in different brain regions, functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was used.
Even though the fact that reminiscing about positive memories helps combat acute stress may seem obvious in retrospect, the results of this study are significant because they show that this technique has a tangible effect on our physiology. The findings also show promise in alternate forms of therapy which incorporate more positive recollection in reducing anxiety. Interestingly, the authors of the study mention how their conclusions shed light on mood disorders such as depression, which goes hand in hand with agonization over past negative events.
Next time you find yourself in a stressful situation, try this technique and see if it works for you!
Speer, M. E., & Delgado, M. R. (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature Human Behaviour, 1(5). doi: 10.1038/s41562-017-0093
Liu, C. H., Stevens, C., Wong, S. H., Yasui, M., & Chen, J. A. (2018). The prevalence and predictors of mental health diagnoses and suicide among U.S. college students: Implications for addressing disparities in service use. Depression and Anxiety, 36(1), 8–17. doi: 10.1002/da.22830
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