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Examining how stress affects good and bad habits

New research shows that while stress can cause us to relapse into bad habits, such as eating junk food or forgoing the gym, it can also reinforce good habits too.

In the study, University of Southern California researchers conducted five experiments involving a group of college students. In one experiment, researchers monitored students' habits and routines for a full semester to test if periods of stress, such as final exam week, lead participants to revert to unhealthy habits. As reported by Futurity:

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, [Wendy Wood, PhD,] explains.

Students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester, such as pastries or doughnuts, ate even more of the junk food during exams. But the same was true of oatmeal-eaters: 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 habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper every day during the semester were more likely to perform this habit during exams—even when they were limited in time. And regular gym-goers were even more likely to go to the gym 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,” Wood says. “Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation.”

Researchers' findings will appear in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

In past Scope Q&As, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, PhD, has discussed how stress shapes us and can influence our willpower. McGonigal notes that while stress is unavoidable, there are ways to effectively manage it. By managing stress, she notes, you can boost efforts to develop good habits, which will hopefully will be reinforced when you're under pressure.

Previously: Ask Stanford Med: Answers to your questions about willpower and tools to reach our goals, Stanford health psychologist Kelly McGonigal discusses how stress shapes us, Boosting willpower and breaking bad habitsStanford health psychologist offers tips for increasing your willpower and The science of willpower
Photo by Chelsea Gomez

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