Maintaining healthy habits is key when you’re stressed out
Many times it can feel like every positive, healthy habit you’ve worked hard to cultivate goes down the drain when you’re feeling stressed—the diet goes out the window, your sleeping habits are affected, you stop exercising. A new study, however, reveals that in times of stress we may tend to stick with behaviors that are good for us.
The study, to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found an important new twist to the idea that it’s harder to take maintain our healthy habits when we’re stressed or tired.
Research shows that we’re just as likely to default to positive habits, such as eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym, as we are to self-sabotage. Lead researchers Wendy Wood and David Neal of the University of Southern California (USC), indicate that lack of control doesn’t automatically mean indulgence or hedonism, what matters is the underlying routine—for better or worse.
“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control,” said Wood, provost professor of Psychology and Business at USC, in a statement. “But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control.”
Consider learned habits, like overeating and smoking, which play a key role in our health and are significant risk factors for major diseases. In fact, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report, obesity and smoking are the two main reasons Americans die before people in other high-income countries.
Although most disease prevention efforts focus on self-control, the latest research from Wood shows that the best way to prevent disease might be knowing how to let go. “Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals,” said Wood. “If you are somebody who doesn’t have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important.”
For example, in one experiment, Wood and her co-investigators followed students for a semester, including during exams. They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were even more likely to stick to old habits. It was as if they didn’t have the energy to do something new, Wood explained.
Those students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester, such as pastries or doughnuts, ate even more junk food during exams. But the same was also true of those who ate oatmeal. So those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast were also more likely to stick to routine and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure.
Similarly, students who had a daily habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper during the semester were more likely to still do this during exams—even when they were time-crunched. And those who regularly went to the gym were even more likely to go when stressed.
“You might expect that when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn’t read the paper at all, but instead, they fell back on their reading habits,” said Wood. “Habits don’t require much willpower, thought and deliberation.”
“So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy productive habits?” said Wood. “ What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”
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