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Why Do We Revert to Bad Habits Under Stress?

Have you ever tried to start a new habit or achieve a goal, only to be derailed when life threw something difficult your way?

Maybe you made a commitment to wake up early to meditate everyday, or to start your day with a run each morning. You started off strong, and you were on track for a while—but then something stressful happened, like…

  • You took on a demanding work project

  • A relationship went south

  • You suffered a loss

And suddenly, you were back to your old ways again. 

If you’ve had this experience, you’re not alone. Changing our habits is always difficult. But it’s even tougher when you add a stressor into the mix. If you’ve ever had to quit smoking, you probably understand this concept well. It can feel “safer” to go back to your old habits when you’re under stress—even if those old habits are destructive.

Why Stress Sends Us Back to Old Habits

Picture this: you’re hiking a well-worn trail. The trail is smooth and easy to follow. Then you decide you’re going to go off the trail and start carving out a new path. Now you have to cut through debris and clear the way for this new path.

The well-worn trail is your brain on autopilot—in your comfort zone, following all your normal habits.

The new path is your brain on a new habit. You’re creating a new neural pathway that didn’t exist before, just like carving out a new path on a trail.

Now imagine you’re on that hike and it suddenly starts storming really hard. What’s your instinct—to keep carving out the new path, or to run back to the trail so you can find your way out?

In this example, the storm represents the stressor. When your body is under stress, it reverts to survival mode—the fight, flight or freeze response. It remembers how you survived stress in the past, and it tries to get back to its old ways.

As you can see, it’s tough to stick to your goals when you’re under stress. But with the right strategy, you CAN stay on track, even when life throws something stressful your way.

3 Ways to Stay the Course When You’re Stressed

  1. Stick to your routine. When you’re under stress, it might be your first instinct to skip your routine. You may want to sleep in instead of getting up to go for your walk, or scroll Instagram instead of sitting down to meditate. But if you let your routine go when you’re under stress, you’re more likely to suffer in other areas of your life too.

  2. Set sustainable goals. One of the reasons people have a hard time accomplishing their goals is because they set goals that are too far out of the norm for them. If you’re not a runner and you decide you’re going to run 5 miles a day, that’s going to be difficult to sustain. Instead, a good goal might be to walk or run at least one mile everyday. You’re much more likely to sustain a habit like that, even when stressors arise.

  3. Have an accountability partner. Whatever your goal is—whether it’s something really challenging, or just drinking enough water everyday—you’ll stand a much better chance of achieving it if you have accountability.

Do you have a goal you’d like to achieve? As a counselor and a nutritional therapy practitioner, I help my clients set viable goals and build sustainable habits, so they can live healthier lives. I’d love to help you on your journey! Schedule your consultation here.


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