When moments of anxiety hit–in all the hardly ideal, often unexpected ways they often do–it’s helpful to have a mental checklist of at least a few coping mechanisms to help get through it, like deep breathing, for example. Another helpful tool you can use to your advantage to help navigate anxious moments is the recency effect, which is the psychological tendency to remember a recent event.
“For example, if you read a list of words, you’re most likely to remember the last one listed,” says psychologist Yasmine Saad, PhD. “Or you’re most likely to remember your last experience at the beach as opposed to previous beach trips.”
So, how does the recency effect lend itself to easing feelings of anxiety? The power of it, says Tess Brigham, MFT, a psychotherapist and certified life coach, is that it holds true whether the last experience in question was a good moment or a not-so-good one. “If the last time you rode in a car, you got car sick, that experience is going to come to mind the next time you get into the car, which could lead to feeling anxious over whether you’ll become car sick again,” she says. All the times you rode in a car without issue prior to that are forgotten, and that one bad experience will stick in your mind, because it’s the most recent one that happened.
But, it doesn’t have to be the case, depending how you embrace the recency effect.
How to use the recency effect if the last experience was bad
If you had a bad experience in the past, it’s natural for anxious feelings to start to creep up when you’re put in a similar situation, Brigham says. Whether it’s feeling awkward at a cocktail party, on a bad date, faltering through a presentation, or otherwise, any bad experience can make someone want to avoid being at risk of repeating the experience, which is reflective of our biological flight-or-fight response.
“The fight-or-flight response is helpful for keeping us out of danger and was especially important when humans had to protect themselves from predators,” Brigham says. “The problem is, it hasn’t been adapted for modern times and is often activated when we’re not actually in danger.” Being in a situation or environment mirroring one where a bad experience happened, she adds, is one such instance. What she suggests you do in these moments is to stick it out. (The caveat is if you truly start to feel unsafe or panic, do whatever you need to help you feel safe again–which can include removing yourself from the environment or situation.)
“To overcome anxiety around car sickness, expose yourself again and again to the car so that you can remember more prominently experiences that went just fine.” –psychologist Yasmine Saad, PhD
In fact, putting yourself in similar situations where something went “wrong” is the key to using the recency effect to your advantage. Otherwise, your most recent memory of a certain place or situation will remain an unpleasant one, says Dr. Saad. “For example, if you want to overcome anxiety around car sickness, it’s important to expose yourself again and again to the car so that you can remember more prominently experiences that went just fine and you weren’t car sick at all,” she says, adding that the same advice follows regardless of the experience, such as dates, parties, presentations, or whatever situation spurred feelings of anxiety in the first place.
How to start using the recency effect to ease feelings of anxiety
If you’re not ready to immerse yourself into a situation that at one time caused you anxiety, don’t push it. The experts say you can go at your own pace, working your way up to it. Maybe you completely faltered through a presentation at work in front of a room full of people. Using the recency effect in this case doesn’t mean you should feel obligated to volunteer to speak at the next company-wide meeting just to push through it. Rather, start by unmuting yourself on Zoom to ask a simple question or leading a meeting for a smaller team. Then, when you feel ready to present again, you can use the recency effect to reflect on those positive small wins before you present.
The same baby-stepping method works for car-sickness example, too. Try just sitting in the car first. Then, go for short rides, slowly working up to longer ones. You’ll be able to remember those short trips going just fine, and soon enough a longer one won’t seem like that big of a hurdle.
Dr. Saad says it’s important to be patient and practice self-compassion when using the recency effect. “If something was a strongly unpleasant situation, it will trump the recency effect and create a stronger memory than a more recent experience that was uneventful or mildly pleasant. You need to expose yourself to several similar situations to really overcome an experience that made you feel anxious,” she says, adding that if something was truly traumatizing, it’s important to work with a therapist to process and heal from it.
In addition to multiple instances of similar experiences allowing the recency effect to work its magic, you’ll be able to enjoy positive subconscious changes as a result of using it, too: The brain will no longer view the environment or situation in question as a threat, so the fight-or-flight mode won’t be activated. That means you may be able to be in the moment, experiencing a feeling that will certainly be welcome: peace.
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