Lawrence LeBlond for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online
Bad habits are easy to fall into when we are stressed and tired, but a novel study has shown that a stressed mind and exhaustive body can also cause people to retain good habits.
Researchers from University of Southern California (USC) have provided important evidence that we do not always fall into a negative routine where it becomes harder to “take control of our actions when we´re already stressed and tired.” Publishing a paper in the June issue of the American Psychological Association´s (APA) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers found that it is just as easy for us to default to positive habits when we become tired and stressed out.
Wendy Wood and David Neal of USC found that people are just as likely to eat a healthy breakfast or go to the gym when they are down and out as they are to “self-sabotage.”
“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. 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,” said Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC,
Wood, who holds joint appointments in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the USC Marshall School of Business, is an expert on habits (automatic behaviors that make it possible for people to function). Without habits, people would have likely have to relearn things each new day, such as brushing their teeth or finding their way to work.
Habits play a significant role in our health, said Wood, who is also vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife. Bad habits, like being idle, overeating and smoking are significant risk factors for major disease. Habits such as these are what drive disease prevention efforts and studies, but the research from Wood and Neal shows that it may be more important to know how to let go.
“Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals,” Wood said. “If you are somebody who doesn’t have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important.”
To put their theory to the test, Wood and her colleagues conducted several experiments, including healthy and unhealthy eating, exercise and reading.
In these experiments, the researchers followed students for a semester, even during exams. They found that during testing periods, when students became more stressed and sleep-deprived, it seemed they were likely to stick to old habits, rather than dispense more energy to try something new.
Students who generally snacked on unhealthy foods during regular school, did so even more during exams. But the same was true of healthy snackers: those who habitually ate a healthy breakfast or snack during the semester tended to stick to that routine when under pressure.
Similarly, students who had a habit of reading the morning paper or editorials each day during the semester were more likely to continue performing this daily habit during testing — even when they were constrained for time. The same was true for regular gym-goers.
People may assume that when students are stressed or short on time, they are likely to fall into unhealthy habits most of the time. But the research indicates that they are more likely to continue to do what they always have done, be it good or bad. “Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation,” explained Wood.
So it makes sense that those who generally stick to healthy habits to begin with, will continue to maintain their healthy habits even when they become stressed and tired, just as those who typically follow unhealthy lifestyle habits continue to do the same.
“So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits? What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine,” Wood concluded.
A study published last year in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that children can learn healthy eating habits from their parents. Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) found that when parents show by example, rather than by ordering, they are more likely able to integrate healthy eating into their child´s diet.
Such measures may also work well for instilling other healthy habits, such as exercise. It may be more important to start teaching our kids now about positive healthy habits instead of letting them find and build their own habits once they fly the coop.