As Stress Mounts, Self-Control Goes Out the Window
Thu Apr 21, 2005
By Alison McCook

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - During times of stress, we're less able to hold ourselves back from unhealthy temptations, new study findings indicate.

Australian researchers found that during exam periods, students smoked more cigarettes, drank more high-caffeine drinks, ate less healthy foods, kept up with fewer household chores, neglected commitments, and monitored spending less.

"The results tell us that during periods of high stress - such as examination periods for students - we may see a relapse in behaviors that we had successfully controlled in the past, such as smoking," lead author Megan Oaten of Macquarie University in Sydney told Reuters Health.

"These findings have practical importance because they illustrate that at times of stress we are particularly vulnerable to breakdowns in self-control," she added. "Therefore, we should not ask too much of ourselves during such a period."

Oaten pointed out that handling stress itself takes self-control. "So, the work required to cope with stress consumes a lot of our self-control strength, and leaves us less able to control our behavior," Oaten said.

During the study, Oaten and her co-author, Ken Cheng, asked 57 students about their typical self-control, then re-interviewed them 4 weeks later, when half were coping with a high-stress exam period.

The researchers found that, during exams, students were less likely to control their behaviors, reporting that they ate more junk food, exercised less, and left more dishes in the sink. They also neglected to shave, brush and floss their teeth, wash their hair, change their clothes and do laundry.

Stressed out students also smoked an average of 7 additional cigarettes each day, and drank 7 extra cups of caffeinated drinks each week.

In contrast, students not coping with exams had no increase in self-indulgent behaviors, suggesting their self-control was as strong as ever, the authors report in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology.

These findings suggest that people should be extra careful during times of stress, Oaten noted. "It appears that people can only control so many behaviors at any one time, and should therefore avoid taking on too much at once, particularly during periods of stress."

Developing stress management skills may also ward off lapses, by leaving more self-control reserves available to fend off the urge to overeat and smoke, she said.

SOURCE: Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, March 2005