There Is a Right Time of Day to Break Bad News

Getting dumped or fired is unpleasant, full stop. Opening with a fancy dinneror small talk about the weather doesn’t help — at best, it prolongs the inevitable. According to a new study, though, there’s one thing that really might help soften the blow: breaking your bad news at night.

The Physiology of Freaking Out

When people get upset and, say, throw a glass of wine at someone who just dumped them, there’s a term for that. Well, really, there are several —“drink-slapping” is one, but the more scientific terms are “acute stress response” or “fight or flight response.”

See, when you experience a sudden stressor, your body produces emergency cortisol. This hormone triggers a surge of glucose in your bloodstream, and that glucose — aka sugar — gives you the energy to react to the stress you’re experiencing, usually by fighting it off or fleeing to safety.

Cortisol is considered the human body’s primary stress hormone, but you don’t just produce it under stress. You produce it all the time, and it varies throughout the day. The Japanese researchers on this study confirmed this at the beginning — they recruited 27 people in their teens and early twenties and checked their cortisol levels every two hours throughout an unremarkable day.

On average, the researchers found that the participants had the highest cortisol levels in the morning, and those naturally tapered off as the day progressed. In other words, people’s cortisol levels are linked to their circadian rhythms (as is basically everything that goes on in our bodies). So — does that mean we respond to stress differently depending on whether it’s morning or night?

The Stress Test

The researchers wanted to find out, but they couldn’t exactly break up with all of their participants to see how they reacted. So instead, they turned to the “gold standard” of stressing people out in research settings: the Trier Social Stress test, which requires participants to give a presentation in front of a panel of stone-faced judges. (Part of the test requires judges to “not provide feedback or encouragement,” seriously.)

Then, in case that wasn’t stressful enough, they have to do an unexpected round of mental math. Still in front of the judges.

About half of this study’s participants took the stress test in the morning, two hours after their normal wake-up time. The other half took the test at night, 10 hours after they woke up. Researchers tracked how the test affected participants’ cortisol levels during and after the presentation.

They found that the morning stress test led to a big spike in cortisol. Cortisol levels in the evening presenters were slightly higher after the test, but not enough to reach statistical significance. Even though the participants already started with a high baseline level of cortisol in the morning, they also produced a ton of additional cortisol during the stressful situation as compared to those who presented at night.

Why might you be more chill at night? The researchers say it might be because your body becomes less sensitive to the hormone that triggers the release of cortisol as the day wears on. As a result, if you want someone to take your bad news in stride, you should probably do it in the evening.

But what if you want to be able to react immediately to someone else’s bad news? The best time for that might be the morning. A stress response doesn’t always mean drink-throwing and drama; it can also help you think more clearly on your feet, and, say, negotiate a severance package. Or think up a brilliant final remark as you turn on your heels and leave.

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