Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : June 1st 2013 Contents A28
body & soul
Guardian www.guardian.co.tt Saturday, June 1, 2013
Under stress, we all tend to seek comfort---some-
times in not-so-healthy ways---but a new study
suggests that challenging experiences are as likely
to promote good habits as they are to support bad
In several different experiments, researchers includ-
ing Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and
business at the University of Southern California,
found that under various types of stress, all types
of habits got stronger---not just the ones that cause
"When your willpower is low and you have little
motivational energy, you are likely to fall back into
old, bad habits of eating too much and not exercis-
ing---but only if those are, in fact, your habits," says
Wood. "Our novel finding is that people fall back
into good habits in just the same way." The study
was published in the Journal of Personality and Social
Stress depletes willpower; indeed, the brain is
wired so that extreme stress actually shuts down the
higher regions involved in long-term planning and
thoughtful consideration. That s because those func-
tions are superfluous when survival is at stake.
When under threat, the brain relies on faster, more
primitive regions whose behaviour is largely automatic
under such circumstances. Automatic doesn t mean
built-in, however: many of our automatic behaviours,
like riding a bike or eating french fries when feeling
anxious, become automatic through repetition.
"People can t make decisions easily when stressed,
are low in
willpower or feel-
sures limit our
capacity to make
The default in
those cases is to
engage in habitual
behaviour, so, she
said, "When you
are too tired to
make a decision,
you tend to just
repeat what you
usually do." And
it doesn t matter
what that habit is.
various types of
habits and stresses. In one experiment, 65 UCLA
students were followed for ten weeks and asked about
their breakfast and news-reading habits.
During the first few weeks, they recorded how
often they ate foods that they considered healthy,
such as cold cereal, hot cereal and health bars. They
also reported on their intake of what they labelled
as unhealthy breakfast selections, including pastries,
pancakes and French toast.
In addition, they detailed whether they regularly
read educational news sections like local and national
news, or lighter fare like advice columns and comics.
The scientists gathered this data over several weeks,
measuring how strong the students breakfast and
news habits were at times when they weren t facing
stressful exams like midterms and finals.
Later, they compared these choices with those
made during exam periods.
And indeed, those who had strong habits---either
healthy or unhealthy---engaged in those behaviours
more when they felt stressed by exam periods.
Whether it was eating French toast or health bars
more regularly or reading news that they felt was
important or a guilty pleasure, habitual behaviours
increased under stress.
A second experiment involved 72 students at Duke
University. This time, they were asked to specify
goals they were hoping to achieve, such as
improving grades or fitness.
They also detailed particular behaviours
they engaged in regularly to reach their
goals, as well as behaviours that might get
in the way.
For two of the four days of the study,
they were randomly assigned to try to per-
form as much of their daily behaviour as
reasonably possible using their nondominant
hand. This task tends to deplete self-control
because it requires inhibiting a strong habit.
Once again, this stressful experience
increased habitual behaviour---whether it
worked toward or against the students goals.
"Our data show that stress and low
willpower increased performance of both
good and bad habits," Wood said.
So why does it seem that only bad habits
emerge when we face the cauldron of stress?
Wood said it was a matter of attention.
"We don t notice so much when we fall
back into good habits."
The bad habits stand out more, in other
words, because they tend to derail us from
achieving our goals.
The findings may prove useful for rein-
forcing good habits that we cultivate to help
our health. But that requires taking the time
to establish these healthy behaviours before
a challenging situation strikes. (Time.com)
Study: Stress can boost good habits too
YOUR DAILY HEALTH
News and Advice
"When your willpower is
low and you have little
motivational energy, you
are likely to fall back
into old, bad habits of
eating too much and not
exercising---but only if
those are, in fact, your
habits. Our novel finding
is that people fall back
into good habits in just
the same way."
professor of psychology
and business, University
of Southern California
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