In the past, you might have scoffed at the advice to "just think positive" when you're stressed out. But neuroscience now shows that a little positive thinking--more specifically--recalling a pleasant memory--is a legitimate way to maintain your Zen.

Revelations from icy water

As Drake Baer of Thrive Global and Emma Young of The British Psychological Society report, researchers Mauricio Delgado and Megan Speer of Rutgers University split 134 participants into two groups. All the participants plunged their hands into icy water. But one group then recalled a neutral experience for 14 seconds, while the second group spent the same amount of time recalling a positive experience. When the researchers compared the levels of the stress hormone cortisol, they found that those in the second group experienced a surge just 15 percent of what those in the first group suffered.

To understand the cause of the results, Delgado and Speer used the same technique with new participants, this time looking at brain activity through fMRI scans. Recalling happy memories increased activity in the prefrontal areas of the brain. Those are the areas you use when you're focusing and trying to regulate how you're feeling. Activity in the corticostriatal regions, which are associated with reward processing, went up, too.

You have what it takes--but it doesn't hurt to create more

Delgado and Speer's study demonstrates that you don't really need any special tools or tricks to stay calm when pressures hit. Your own experiences are enough. So if you can't grab your fidget spinner or stress ball, don't sweat it.

Secondly, the research offers even more credence to the idea that you need time to socialize and be yourself outside of work. You certainly can have good times with your team, of course, but the more you interact with others or engage in activities you enjoy, the more positive experiences you'll create. Subsequently, the more memories you'll be able to recall for stress relief.

So maybe Peter Pan's "any happy little thought" direction needs to be a little more specific. But he sure got it close.

Published on: Sep 5, 2017
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