Stress is your body’s way of responding to external or internal threats. Whenever you feel threatened, your nervous system responds by releasing stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which prepares the body to take immediate actions. Interestingly, when people face stress, inbuilt habits are intensified while goal-oriented behaviors are reduced.
Increase in routine behaviors
In a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by researchers at the University of Southern California, they found that goal-oriented behavior was replaced with their common habits during stressful periods.
As part of their series of five experiments, the team followed students during the school semester and observed them during their exams. During this period of sleep deprivation, stress and intensive studying, the researchers noticed that there was an increase in their routine behaviors. For example, students who ate unhealthily on a regular basis continued eating more junk food during the exam period, while those who ate healthy breakfasts continued doing so. Also, if his habits involved hitting the gym or reading the papers, they continued with these activities even though they were facing time constraints.
One of the researchers, Wendy Wood, said, “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.”
Effects of stress hormones
Researchers have suspected that stress-related brain chemicals are the ones responsible for making us rely on our regular behaviors when the pressure is on. The team published their findings in the Journal of Neuroscience, which revealed that the stress hormones caused the brain to switch from goal-directed behavior to routines.
In the experiment, the researchers trained participants on a computer-based food reward activity. The participants learned that specific buttons would give them their preferred food. They then went on to eat as much of their preferred food as they wanted, till they no longer desired it. Participants were also given different stress hormones, and it was discovered that the combination of two particular stress hormones, yohimbine and hydrocortisone, caused them to follow the routine they were used to, and they continued to press the buttons for the food they no longer wanted instead of choosing something else.
Willpower versus habits
Stress causes the brain to rely on its instincts, and during the periods of stress, we tend to think less and act more. Instead of thinking rationally, the brain reacts automatically to conserve cognitive resources and our willpower disappears, which makes it harder to control impulses and resist old habits. This means that controlling your behaviour may not be that effective to meet your goals, and hence you can get derailed easily.
Wendy said, “If you are somebody who doesn’t have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important.”
This research has shown that innate habits are very important in this stressful world. When we are stressed, the brain does not consider or differentiate good from bad behaviors, and simply relies on our habits. If you have not been practicing good habits, perhaps this study would encourage you to, and you could see yourself cope better or even excelling under stressful situations. Stress does not only affect impact your habits and goals, but your body and well-being as well. And if you feel overwhelmed by stress, do look out for ways that affect you positively and help you reduce stress easily; nothing is more important than your mental health.
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