Recalling positive experiences from your past may block rising cortisol levels, researchers say.

May 23, 2017

The next time you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a stress sesh, you might want to take a moment to channel your inner Peter Pan and “think lovely, wonderful thoughts.” While it won't help you take flight as it did for Pan, focusing on happy memories could give you a real lift: According to research published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, positive memories seem to pump the breaks on cortisol. And we all know that elevated levels of this stress hormone have been linked to everything from weight gain to heart disease.

“There is evidence for emotion regulation to be suppressed under stress,” explains Mauricio Delgado, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Rutgers University. “We show that a potential alternative form of regulation—if more traditional cognitive strategies are unsuccessful under stress—may be by increasing positive emotion via recalling positive memories.”

For the study, Delgado and his co-author, doctoral candidate Megan Speer, had participants plunge their hands in icy water and think either happy or neutral thoughts. The researchers discovered that participants who recalled joyous memories experienced a buffer of sorts against rising cortisol levels compared to those thinking neutral thoughts.

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The authors then repeated the experiment with a different group of volunteers, but this time they scanned their brains. The scans revealed that the happy thinkers experienced increased activity in the part of the brain associated with emotion regulation and cognitive control (the same area that's suppressed by acute stress), and in the brain region that corresponds with the processing of rewards.

“Certainly increasing positive emotion for some will help defray some of the cost of the bad,” notes Delgado. “We also think the recall of positive memories is less effortful than more traditional cognitive regulation, and it might be something that people already tend to do naturally.”

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Still, Delgado says, more research is needed, especially into whether specific contents of memories help facilitate this effect. “An idea is that some of our most memorable positive events tend to involve [people close to us],” he notes. “We, and others, have previously shown that interactions with [those who are close to us] tend to modulate this reward circuit. So there is an interesting interaction between reward, memory, and social systems that we have begun to explore.”

In the meantime, whenever you feel a stress spiral coming on, just remember that a happy flashback may be all you need to stop that cortisol hike in its tracks.