When feeling stressed, we tend to fall back on old habits. But lapsing into routine isn’t always bad — a new study from researchers at the University of Southern California (USC)suggests that our behavioral crutches are just as likely to help as harm us.
The link between stress and unhealthy behaviors like binge drinking and overeating is well documented. In a 2011 study, for instance, when regular cigarette smokers encountered a stressful situation, they were more likely to smoke, and smoked more intensely. The current study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and led by USC Professor Wendy Wood and David Neal, a former USC assistant psychology professor, demonstrates that healthy behaviors like eating breakfast and exercising can be stress-induced habits, too — provided those behaviors are already established. Wood, one of the world’s leading experts on habit, and colleagues followed student participants for one semester, including during exams. According to the researchers, the findings shed light on a behavioral mechanism that has practical value for encouraging the development of good habits and discouraging bad ones.
In times of stress, people have less self-control because the resources required for higher cognitive functions like planning and concentration are diverted towards maintaining survival. Our brains instead respond automatically to environmental cues, and we act in ways shaped and reinforced by our past behavior. The researchers therefore hypothesized that stress would bring out both good and bad habits, since both operate under automatic processes rather than intentional ones.
To test their theory, the researchers set up four differently constructed experiments. In the first one, the researchers asked 65 UCLA students to record their breakfast and reading habits and judge whether those habits were healthy or unhealthy. The students considered oatmeal, cold cereal and health bars to be healthy breakfast options, and pancakes, French toast and pastries to be unhealthy. They deemed reading educational news to be a good habit, and reading the comics and other “time-wasting” sections to be bad. After collecting those data over several weeks, the researchers determined the strength of the students’ habits and compared their typical behavior with their behavior during exams — generally a time of high stress and sleep deprivation.
The researchers found that students with strong habits performed those behaviors more frequently during testing periods, regardless of whether they considered the behaviors “good” or “bad.” They also noted that normally good behaviors could sometimes become maladaptive under stress — like when reading the paper takes time away from studying.
In a second experiment, 72 students at Duke University identified personal goals as well as two good habits in line with achieving that goal, and two bad habits working against it. The students recorded their behavior over four days. They were randomly assigned to try to do as much as possible with their non-dominant hand for half of that time — a task that sucks up attentional resources and depletes willpower for other activities. As in the first experiment, when the students were dealing with the stress of the hand task, they relied more on old habits — either good or bad.
The other two experiments involved snack choice before and after stressful tests, and elicited the same results. Finally, the researchers administered a questionnaire to a separate group of students, and found that those who reported low self-control also had stronger habits. The last study wasn’t a controlled experiment, however, so it’s not clear whether less self-control leads to strong habits or habits decrease self-control.
Most prior research on stress focuses on the association between depleted willpower and bad habits, and anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that unhealthy behaviors are more common under pressure — a phenomenon that appears at odds with the new research. As an explanation, the researchers propose that while we are susceptible to good and bad habits alike, we are more attuned to bad habits, which cause us distress when we notice ourselves engaging in them. Good habits, on the other hand, are likely to pass unnoticed — we take them for granted once they are established.
By considering the relationship between habits and self-control, we can devise new interventions that may facilitate our ability to form good habits and stamp out bad ones, the researchers say. For example, since low willpower encourages habitual behaviors, people should attempt to lose bad habits at times when they have more available self-control, instead of when they are distracted. Likewise, people seeking to reinforce good habits should take advantage of stressful conditions and perform the behavior when their self-control is diverted.
Channeling stress to promote healthy behaviors won’t be easy, however. If you want your habits under pressure to be positive, you have to practice them and establish them as habits before disaster strikes.