We Fall Back on Habits, Good or Bad, When Stressed

Setting up healthy new habits, not controlling your behavior when stressed, may be the more effective way to cut back on eating or spending sprees

Photo: Cody Doctorow

Habits and routines are often divided into the good (hitting the gym, eating healthy, meditating) and the bad (indulging in shopping sprees, gorging on junk food, watching 12 hours of television in one sitting). When we get stressed, the assumption tends to be that we fall back on our worst habits. Our inhibitions must less guarded when we’re preoccupied with other problems. According to new research, however, that’s not the case. While we do fall back on habits and routines during times of stress, the BBC reports, we’re just as prone to rely upon the good as the bad.  

The researchers recruited 65 University of California students to take part in their study. They followed their subjects over the course of a school term and especially honed in on the students’ behaviors during exams, which they assumed was a stressful period. As expected, the stressed, exhausted students seemed to reinforce their habits when finals were at their worst. Those who normally had a pastry or donut for breakfast, for example, took that behavior a step further and binged on junk food during exams.

On the other hand, healthy or neutral habits also came into play. People who normally went to the gym were even more likely to work out during finals, while those who had a habit of reading the paper still made time for this activity despite their increased workload.

“Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behaviour may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals,” study author Wendy Wood told the BBC. “What we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

How to Shut Off Bad Habits 
Does Your Last Name Affect Your Buying Habits? 

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