How Stress Affects Willpower
Trying to get rid of bad habits isn’t easy. It’s almost as hard as trying to start or maintain healthy behaviors.
But that doesn’t mean we should try. Scientists are trying to figure out exactly why we fail more than we succeed in establishing or ridding ourselves of certain behaviors.
It’s also one of the key areas I want to inform you good readers about at The Brain Flux.
One big reason our willpower isn’t up to the task is because of a well known enemy of self-control and decision making.
It’s also something that researchers from the University of Zurich wanted to learn more about. Their new study is helping to uncover more details about the interaction between willpower and stress. They’ve found that it’s a complex interaction, with multiple parts of the brain playing a role.
We All Have a Choice
To study self-control we need to be confronted with a choice. And if you want to study the phenomenon of stress, you have to do so while under duress. So these are the conditions that the researchers tried to replicate in their study.
They decided the easiest way to do this was to have people pick between foods while stressing them out.
A total of 51 participants were chosen for the study, all of whom were trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. The choice of food items? A tasty, unhealthy, item and a healthier, but less savory item. A choice that closely mirrors what we face in the real world.
29 of the participants had their arms dunked in ice cold water before making the choice. The other 22 simply had to pick between the two items. This simulated people making a choice under stress and compared it to a choice with no stress.
The scientists found what they were looking for. The people under stress weighed the taste of the unhealthy item more heavily, and were more likely to choose it. The people with no stress picked the healthier item.
This news may not surprise some, but it does back up evidence of previous studies.
The revealing part was the brain activity of the participants during the experiment. Scientists saw alternating spikes in connectivity in several regions of the brain. They also noticed that the stress hormone – cortisol – was partially responsible for the reduction in the connectivity. With reduction in brain communication, came reduced willpower.
The researchers also found large differences in brain activity among subjects. This means that some people were more resilient when making choices under stress. An interesting piece of information that can provide further clues with more research.
One of the authors, Todd Hare, summed up the findings by saying:
“This is important because moderate stressors are more common than extreme events and will thus influence self-control choices more frequently and for a larger portion of the population. One interesting avenue for future research will be to determine whether some of the factors shown to protect against structural brain changes following severe stress–such as exercise and social support–can also buffer the effects of moderate stress on decision making.”
Their results were published in the journal Neuron.
A number of studies have shown that stress has an undeniable effect on our eating behavior. Research has also shown how stress can affect goal oriented behavior. So this gives us another piece to the unraveling the stress puzzle.
So it is very likely that effective stress management will also help you boost you willpower. For example, an often overlooked strategy for helping us deal better with stress is sleep. Other forms of stress management may very likely give us more self-control by helping us to battle everyday stress.
So if your life is hectic, make sure you find ways to relax.
And if you want to keep up on the latest in stress and self-control science, be sure to sign up for updates from The Brain Flux.