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Stress as likely to lead to good habits as bad, study finds

fresh fruit
Stress is as likely to have people reaching for fresh fruit as bingeing on ice cream and cookies.

Contrary to popular belief, high levels of stress don’t necessarily lead to “bad” habits, like being sedentary and munching on cookies and ice cream all day. Stress is just as likely to cause us to resort to “good” habits, like taking daily walks and snacking on fresh fruits.

It all depends on what our habits were before the stress came along.

That’s the intriguing key finding from a study in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a publication by the American Psychological Association. Apparently, we find comfort in our familiar routines and will automatically revert back to them when under stress, for better or for worse.

A series of experiments

For the study, a team of researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) conducted five separate experiments to test whether longstanding habits improve or derail people’s best-laid goals during stressful times, when their willpower is limited.

In one experiment, for example, 65 graduate students were followed during a 10-week semester, including the final two-week exam period. They were asked throughout the semester to fill out daily questionnaires about their breakfast and news-reading habits.

An analysis of that data found that during the exam weeks, when the students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they reverted to their pre-exam habits. If they often ate an unhealthy breakfast — say, doughnuts or sweet pastries — they were even more likely to do so during exams. On the other hand, those students whose morning routine usually included something healthful, like a bowl of oatmeal, stuck to that routine. The added stress didn’t make them turn to more calorie-laden foods.

The same was true for the students’ reading habits. Those who read the news and editorial sections of the paper daily during the “easier” parts of the semester continued to do so during exams — even though it cut into their study time. (Interestingly, students did, however, stop reading the comics.)

In another experiment, the researchers asked 72 students to list two goals they were pursuing daily in their lives, such as getting fit or improving their grades. They were also asked to describe which of their behaviors helped and which hindered them from reaching those goals.

The students were then assigned to spend two days using their non-dominant hand for all daily tasks (unless doing so might cause a safety problem). Other research has shown that asking people to do tasks with their non-dominant hand increases their stress and weakens their self-control.

As in the first experiment, the students tended to resort to old habits during those two days of stress, whether or not those habits got them closer to their personal goals.

Make good habits routine

Why does it seem that we resort only to bad habits when we’re under stress? People “are likely to be more aware of their bad than good habits simply because bad habits are so challenging to control,” explain the authors of the study.

In other words, we notice that stress leads us to mindlessly devour, say, chocolate bars because we know that such snacks are keeping us from our goal of maintaining a healthful weight. But we may not notice — or, at least, not give ourselves credit — if we continue our daily walk during periods of stress.

What this study also suggests is that if you want to not fall back on bad habits when under stress, your best strategy is to form good habits during non-stressful times, when your willpower is stronger. Once you make, say, eating a green salad for lunch or going to the gym after work part of your regular routine, you’re much more likely to automatically stick to those good-for-you habits when times get more challenging.

You can read the USC/UCLA article here.

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