The Recency Effect: How to Use To Calm Anxious Thoughts

When anxiety strikes—in all of the less than ideal, often unexpected ways it does—beneficial it’s to have a mental checklist of at least a few coping methods on hand, such as deep breathing. The recency effect, which is the psychological predisposition to remember a recent incident, is another useful tool you may utilise to help you navigate uncomfortable periods.

“If you read a list of words, for example, you’re more likely to recall the last one,” says psychologist Yasmine Saad, PhD. “Or you’re more likely to recall your most recent beach vacation than than past beach trips.”

So, how does the recency effect aid in the reduction of anxiety? According to Tess Brigham, MFT, a psychotherapist and professional life coach, the power of it is that it holds true whether the previous experience was a positive or negative one. “If you felt car sick the previous time you travelled in a car, that experience may come to mind the next time you go in the car, which may lead to anxiety of being car sick again,” she explains. All of the other times you travelled in a car without incident before that will be forgotten, and just that one terrible event will remain in your consciousness because it was the most recent one.

However, depending on how you approach the recency impact, this does not have to be the case.

How to make the most of the recency effect if the previous experience was negative

When you’ve had a poor experience in the past, it’s normal to feel worried when you’re put in a similar position, Brigham says. Whether it’s awkwardness at a cocktail party, a disastrous date, or stumbling through a presentation, any negative event might make someone want to avoid repeating it, which is a reflection of our biological flight-or-fight response.

“The fight-or-flight reaction keeps us safe and was especially critical when people had to defend themselves from predators,” Brigham adds. “The issue is that it hasn’t been updated for modern times, and it frequently activates when we aren’t in danger.” One such instance, she explains, is being in a setting or place that is similar to one in which a negative experience occurred. She advises you to stick it out in these situations. (The caveat is that if you actually feel uncomfortable or panicked, do whatever you need to feel safe again, which may involve withdrawing yourself from the circumstance or setting.)

“Expose yourself to the car repeatedly to overcome concern about car sickness so that you can remember more vividly situations that went well.” —Yasmine Saad, PhD, a psychologist

In reality, the key to maximising the recency effect is to place oneself in similar scenarios where things went “wrong.” Otherwise, according to Dr. Saad, your most recent recollection of a certain place or situation will remain negative. “For example, if you want to overcome anxiety about car sickness, it’s important to expose yourself to the car repeatedly so that you can remember more vividly experiences where you weren’t car sick at all,” she says, adding that the same advice applies regardless of the experience, such as dates, parties, presentations, or whatever situation triggered anxiety.

How to begin utilising the recency effect to alleviate anxiety

Don’t force yourself into a situation that previously gave you anxiety if you’re not ready. Experts advise you can go at your own pace and gradually build up to it. Perhaps you absolutely failed to deliver a presentation in front of a large group of people at work. Because you’re using the recency effect in this scenario, you shouldn’t feel forced to volunteer to speak at the next company-wide meeting just to get it over with. Instead, unmute yourself on Zoom and ask a basic inquiry or lead a discussion with a smaller group. Then, when you’re ready to give another presentation, you may leverage the recency effect to dwell on those tiny victories.

In the case of automobile sickness, the same baby-stepping strategy applies. Initially, just sit in the car. Then, start with short rides and work your way up to longer ones. You’ll recall how well those little trips went, and a longer one won’t seem so difficult.

When using the recency effect, Dr. Saad recommends being patient and practising self-compassion. “If something was extremely painful, the recency effect will be overridden, and the memory will be stronger than a more recent experience that was uneventful or somewhat pleasurable. To really overcome an experience that made you feel uneasy, you must expose yourself to multiple comparable scenarios “She goes on to note that if something was truly traumatic, working with a therapist to process and heal from it is critical.

You’ll be able to enjoy good subconscious alterations as a result of leveraging the recency effect, in addition to many instances of similar events allowing it to work its magic: The brain will no longer perceive the environment or circumstance as a danger, and the fight-or-flight response will not be triggered. That means you could be able to be present in the moment, having a pleasant sensation: peace.

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