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Stress Boosts Good and Bad Habits, Study Finds

By Sara Battista, NAMI Communications Intern

New research published this June in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology shows a boost in both good and bad habit performance during stressful times, when willpower is at its lowest. Throughout five experiments, researchers tested how self-control influences people’s engagement in routine activities and found that relying on habits during stressful times may actually promote goal adherence.

Past research has shown a strong connection between self-control and stress levels; so that when stress levels are high, self-control is low, and people tend to revert back to old habits in order to avoid wasting brain power on making difficult choices. “People can’t make decisions easily when stressed, low on will power, or feeling overwhelmed,” researcher Wendy Woods says. In order to compensate for this lack of decisiveness, we rely on habits. “When you are too tired to make a decision, you tend to just repeat what you usually do,” she adds. 

Previous studies have shown that stressful times illicit increased performance in a range of existing bad habits from snacking to alcohol abuse. Researchers from the present study hoped to expand upon this knowledge by focusing on how the lower level of self-control associated with stress can promote people’s ability to engage in positive habits that they want to perform, too, such as greater gym attendance for habitual exercisers.

The first of the five studies researchers conducted examined students from UCLA to measure how their amount of habit performance during exams (a time of increased stress) compared to the rest of the semester. Results showed that students engaged in both positive activities (e.g., reading the newspaper) and negative activities (e.g., unhealthy eating) more frequently while experiencing stress during exam time.

A second study conducted at Duke University evaluated the role of self-control and habits in goal-adherence. This study extended upon the previous one by showing that when willpower and motivational energy are lower, people tend to increase their performance of habits that both helped and hindered their ability to achieve their goals.

Further studies showed that when self-control was reduced during stressful times, participants apparently met their goals through increased performance of good habits. Conversely, when stress levels were low, participants were able to exercise more self-control and engage in goal-oriented activities even when doing so required deviating from habits.

Some may be surprised to find that the same stress that causes use to relapse into bad habits can also help us commit to the performance of good habits. “We don’t notice as much when we fall back into good habits—these are the ones that are working for us to meet our goals, and so they aren’t problematic. It’s the bad habits we focus on, and thus people are more aware of falling back into bad habits when willpower is low,” Woods says.  In other words, the habits that prevent us from performing our best tend to be more noticeable, as those are the habits that interfere most with daily life when stress levels are high.

Given that willpower is often limited, the results from this study have important implications for how we can best use stress to our advantage. The most efficient way to do so is to establish healthy lifestyle habits during non-stressful times in order to ensure that we will automatically default to these positive habits—rather than negative—during times of stress.

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