“Think happy thoughts” is among the most generic de-stressing advice you can possibly receive, up there with “stay positive” and “try not to worry about it” — all tips so blatantly obvious that they don’t really need to be said out loud. Oh, so it’s not soothing to fixate the an endless loop of nightmare scenarios playing out in my head? Good to know.
Still, irritatingly predictable though it may be, it’s pretty solid advice — in a study recently published in the journal Nature Human Behavior and highlighted by Emma Young at BPS Research Digest, a team of researchers found that intentionally bringing up positive memories can stop your body’s stress response in action.
For the first part of the study, the researchers threw their subjects into an anxiety-inducing situation, asking them to immerse their hands in freezing-cold water. Once that was over, the authors split the participants into two groups: Some were instructed to think of a happy event from their past, and the rest to think of a memory that didn’t have much emotion attached, like going through the motions of a mundane task.
Unsurprisingly, members of that first group ended up in a better mood post–ice bath. More interesting to the researchers, though, was the physical manifestation of that difference — while the cold-water task had caused levels of the stress hormone cortisol to skyrocket in the neutral-memory subjects, those who had recalled something more positive saw a comparatively tiny cortisol bump. “Thinking about happy memories, then, went right to the heart of the physiological stress response,” Young explained:
To explore how, [the authors] used the same technique as before to stress a fresh group of volunteers and then had them reminisce about their own positive or neutral experiences while they scanned their brains using fMRI. The pair found that recollecting good, but not neutral, memories was associated with increased activity in prefrontal brain regions associated with emotion regulation and cognitive control – the same regions suppressed by acute stress – as well as in corticostriatal regions associated with the processing of reward.
“These findings highlight the restorative and protective function of self-generated positive emotions via memory recall in the face of stress,” the authors concluded. Sure, it’s something you’ve known all along, but still — it’s kind of cool to understand how a common-sense platitude really works its way through your brain and body.