Indulging in ice cream, biting our nails, or snapping our gum – when we’re stressed out, we already know we’re going to revert to our old, bad habits. But did you know it’s not just the bad habits that come out during these times?
According to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, people are more likely to revert to fundamental routines – whether good or bad – during times of stress. It’s just that the bad habits are more obvious because we feel guilty afterwards, and the good habits go unnoticed because they tend to be helpful.
For their paper, researchers from the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles monitored college students for a series of studies related to habits, willpower, and goals.
In the first study, researchers looked at the strength of habits relating to eating breakfast and reading the newspaper. Some individuals had habits of eating a healthy breakfast such as cold/hot cereal, and health bars versus others who had bad breakfast habits, choosing unhealthful, high-sugar items such as pastries, pancakes/French toast, and ice-blended coffee drinks. Newspaper readers were divided depending on whether they read educational sections such as local or world news, editorials, and the business section as opposed to “time-wasting” sections such as advice columns or comics.
“People are more likely to revert to fundamental routines – whether good or bad – during times of stress.”
Students’ behavior was tracked over 10 weeks; of those weeks, two weeks were weeks during which students had an intense series of exams. Researchers expected students to have compromised willpower during the more stressful exam weeks.
Results of the first study showed that strong habits were more likely to express during the stressful exam weeks than during the less stressful non-exam weeks. This was the case for both “good” and “bad” habits, showing that people fall back on all habits during times of stress.
Another study also tested the relationship between lowered self-control and habits by manipulating stress levels for participants to test the role of habits in sticking to goals. As researchers followed participants over a series of days, participants were instructed to perform daily activities with their nondominant hand on certain days. For example, if they were right-handed, they were to use their left hand when engaging in activities such as using a cell phone. The purpose of this was to induce conscious self-control by causing stress to the willpower system.
Participants identified two personal, current goals, and identified three good and bad habits they associated with their goals; good habits were classified as habits that would help them achieve their goals, and bad habits were those that would hinder goal acquisition.
Results showed that on days where the non-dominant hand was used, participants were more likely to engage in both good and bad habits than they were on days when they were allowed to use their dominant hand.
Three additional studies conducted for the paper also analyzed participants’ actions under stress, including healthful and unhealthful snack choices and study habits. Results showed that individuals tend to revert to habits because their actions are unconscious. That is, when willpower is depleted, they are not purposefully choosing to act a certain way; rather, they are acting in a manner based on their habits.
Since willpower is often reduced in daily life, researchers conclude that their results “suggest that implementing healthful and environmentally sustainable lifestyles may require more than just appropriate goal setting and more than just effective habit formation. Instead, interventions may need to consider how these factors interact with each other, depending on the vagaries of self-control in daily life.”
The Bottom Line
This study is just one of many that establish the power of habits in daily life, which is often stressful. It points to the importance of developing a set of habits that are health-promoting. The question is, how?
Put it in writing. Don’t underestimate the power of words, especially those you can see. Keeping a food diary is a great tool for those looking to lose weight, so take the same approach with other habits. Try writing a list of pros and cons of a particular habit, and keep a log of when you do it. Since habits tend to be unconscious, becoming more conscious of them can help you change or maintain them.
Plan ahead. Unconscious decisions can be thwarted by conscious ones. Know you’re going to have a long day? Then plan ahead and make sure you have plenty of healthy snacks on hand to keep yourself satisfied. This way, you don’t make any unplanned detours to the drive-through or vending machine.
Change the environment. If we change our surroundings, we can remove cues that cause us to fall back on bad habits. For example, if you keep your snacks out on the counter, you may be tempted to reach for them more frequently. Put snacks away in opaque containers in the pantry – out-of-sight, out-of-mind!
Disrupt established patterns. Tony Robbins is a big fan of this. Changing a habit can come from changing the patterns that lead to it. If you usually have a heavy dinner and “work it off” at the gym later, change up your routine. Hit the gym first, and follow up with a light dinner and fruit instead.
Be patient. Changing long-held habits and establishing new ones take time. Make sure your goals are realistic, and make them long-term. Try a month-long plan, and if you find you need more time, allow yourself more time. As long as you’re patient and motivated, you’ll get there!
If you’re looking for inspiration, you may want to read The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson. In the book, he talks about developing small daily habits and how those add up over time to help you achieve success.
For example, if you’re looking to lose weight, a small, simple step like cutting out your afternoon snack of chips and replacing with an apple might save you 100 calories or so, but if you do this each day, before you know it, you’ve lost a pound, several pounds, etc.
“Success in life comes one day at a time and,” as Jeff Olson suggests, “one step at a time…your daily decisions can be the ultimate key to your success.”
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.