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Stress Can Boost Good Habits

Update Date: May 27, 2013 09:46 AM EDT

It's no secret that stress and exhaustion can sometimes turn us into mindless zombies who overeat and over shop. However, a new study reveals that this lack of control during times of stress can also help boost good habits we've formed over time.

The findings published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people are just as likely to turn to good habits as they are to bad habits when they're under pressure.

Study authors said that the latest study provides an important new twist to the idea that people have finite resources for self-regulation, or that people find it more difficult to take control of their actions when they're stressed or tired.

 Lead researcher Wendy Wood says the findings provide evidence that being on autopilot doesn't automatically mean that people will self-sabotage.  Instead, she says that it's the established routine that matters, for better or worse.

"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," Wood said in a news release.

She explains that automatic behaviors, like taking a shower or getting to work in the morning, are important for efficiency and everyday function. She said that these automatic behaviors also play a big role in our health.  Behaviors like exercise, overeating and smoking are significantly risk factors for major diseases. 

However, while most disease prevention efforts focus on self-control, the latest findings suggest that the best way to prevent disease might be known how to relax and 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 explained. "If you are somebody who doesn't have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important."

For the study researchers found that during stressful exam time, students were more likely to stick to old habits and had no energy to try new things.

The study found that students who normally ate unhealthy breakfasts like pastries or doughnuts ate even more junk food during exams.  However, those who regularly ate oatmeal were also more likely to stick to their healthy breakfasts and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure.

The findings also revealed that students who regularly read editorial pages in the newspaper were more likely to perform this habit during exam time, even when they were short on time.  Researchers said regular gym-goers were also more likely to hit the gym in times of stress.

"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 said. "Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation."

"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," she concluded.

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