Stress and Habits

After a particularly rough day, you may be tempted to stop by the bar for a few rounds, but new research says that’s only the case because it’s what you’re used to doing. 

According to research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people are just as likely to indulge in good habits during stressful periods as they are to self-sabotage with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. 

Researchers at the University of Southern California conducted five experiments to see how humans behave while under stress and what they do to cope with it.

Testing Behavior During Stressful Situations

In one experiment, Wendy Wood, a leading expert on habits and a provost professor of psychology and business at USC, tracked the habits of USC students for one semester.

Even during the hectic, stressful, and potentially sleep-deprived period of final exams, students in the study stuck with the comfort of old habits. Students who typically opted for the quick calories in pastries and doughnuts ate even more junk food during finals, while those who ate oatmeal every morning were more likely to stick with their morning bowl at exam time.  

And the students stuck with other habits, such as reading the newspaper or going to the gym, even when free time was an issue.

To Wood, it appeared as if the students were on autopilot and didn’t have the energy to do anything outside of their normal routines.

“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,” Wood said in a press release. “Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation.”

The Importance of Healthy Routines

You can spend all of your time trying to avoid stress, but that might be more stressful than tackling it head on and coping with it as it comes.

Unhealthy routines—such as smoking, poor diet, drinking, and recreational drug use—only get worse during stressful situations, and this can greatly impact your health. All are risk factors for major diseases, such as cancer, stroke, and premature death.

Wood says that while most disease prevention strategies focus on controlling urges when they arise, her research shows that the secret to preventing disease might be knowing how to let go of stress.

“Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals,” she said. “If you are somebody who doesn't have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important.”

Besides the possible long-term health effects, the daily toll of these bad behaviors—no matter how relaxing you think they are—can put a strain on your body and make you less prepared to handle future stress. 

“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control,” Wood said. “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.”

The key to incorporating healthy behaviors, Wood said, is to make small changes gradually. 

“What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform,” she said, “so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”

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