Old habits really do die hard, especially when we’re under pressure. But a new study finds that while people fall back on established routines when stressed, this includes healthy habits as well.
While common belief dictates that stress can trigger overeating or shopping sprees, that’s not necessarily the case, according to new research. Turns out we’re just as likely to default to positive habits, such as eating a healthy breakfast or going to the gym, as we are to self-sabotage.
Lack of control doesn't automatically mean indulgence or hedonism -- it's the underlying routine that matters, for better or worse, the researchers said.
In a study to be published in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Wendy Wood and David Neal of the University of Southern California looked at the behaviors of 65 students over a 10-week term.
They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were even more likely to stick to old habits since they didn’t have the energy to do something new, Wood said. Students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester -- such as pastries or doughnuts -- ate even more of the junk food during exams. But the same was true of the "oatmeal eaters" -- those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast were also more likely to stick to routine and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure.
Similarly, students who had a habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper every day during the semester were more likely to perform this habit during exams -- even when they were limited in time. And regular gym-goers were even more likely to go to the gym when stressed.
"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?" she asked.
"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."