We default as easily to good habits as bad, science says — Creating positive routines is the key
It’s one of the questions resounding for most of us right now: Will working from home, amid some of the highest uncertainty and stress of our lifetimes, will we resort to bad habits?
The gyms are closed. Working from home brings disruptions. Everyone is stressed about the coronavirus pandemic and about the impact loss of businesses, jobs and a damaged economy will cause. So, is all of our prior focus on New Year’s Resolutions, fitness and health down the drain?
The worry of giving in to bad habits is not unfounded. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) is clear about the impact anxiety has our health and well- being. The stress around an infectious disease outbreak (let alone job security, a down economy and the increased responsibilities of self-quarantine and working from home) can include
- Fear and worry about your own health and the health of your loved ones
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of concentration
- Worsening of chronic health problems
- Worsening of mental health conditions
- Increased use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
Here’s a snapshot of what’s been happening since the U.S. stay-at-home orders began, according to Thrive Global: According to Nielsen, alcohol sales went up by 55% in the week that ended March 21, 2020. People have been eating more and exercising less. And according to our fitness trackers, physical movement has suffered. New data from 68,000 fitness trackers, show a 39% decline in physical activity throughout the U.S. since March 1, 2020.
We’re streaming TV at higher than typical rates, to the tune of 156 billion minutes of television per week during March (41 billion minutes more than the last week of February, Axios reports).
In times of overwhelming stress, our instinctive reaction is to flee toward whatever substance or activity can provide us with comfort, whether it be alcohol, sugar, technology or shopping. Our tendency to gamble or overspend increases and our tempers are short.
But that’s not how it has to be, says Vick Tipnes (@VickTipnes), the Tampa, Fla. founder of Blackstone Medical Services. Tipnes should know – Blackstone is a leading provider of home sleep testing to diagnose sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition that impacts as many as one in every five people.
He’s also an expert in health, wellness and human performance. As I talk to him about the impact of stress on our health, his answers surprise me. For a business owner whose revenue comes from the diagnosis and correction of the maladies of disordered sleep, he is surprisingly optimistic about our power to reduce many of the risks of inferior health on our own.
As a keynote speaker and advocate for human potential, Tipnes believes the news is not entirely bad. Many of the factors that make us vulnerable to disease, to fear and to lowered job or business performance are within our control, he maintains.
Take care of your body, Tipnes says, through a healthy diet, regular exercise and yes, high-quality sleep, as well as avoiding excess alcohol and drugs. If you’ve struggled so far, he says, do not be overtaken by the worry that all of your prior work is for naught.
Scientific experts agree. Research from five experiments reported in the American Psychology Association show that we have finite resources for self-regulation when we’re stressed out and tired. However, there’s a silver lining in this. Experiments from USC have proven our lack of control doesn’t necessarily mean indulgence or hedonism – it’s our underlying routine that matters (a conclusion that is also reinforced in the bestselling book Atomic Habits, by James Clear).
What this means: We’re equally likely to default to good habits as bad. Stressing about motivation and self-discipline, then, isn’t nearly so much of an issue as establishing the right habits. Learned routines can include a little better behavior each day. As we do, when the stress is upon us, our unconscious tendencies will be to default to our familiar routines, whether they’re good ones or bad.
Smoking, drug use and overeating are habits that will shorten our lifespans and increase our vulnerability to heart disease, cancers, and yes, to sleeping disorders and disease.
But increasing our positive habits to include drinking more water, 30 minutes of daily fitness activity, 5 servings of fruits and vegetables and going to bed in time to get 8 or more hours of sleep can become the positive habits we don’t have to think about when unthinkable stresses arise.
Tipnes smiles when I point out the irony in the fact the habits he promotes could significantly reduce the need for the treatments his medical service facilities provide. It’s clear he’d take great satisfaction in helping as many people as possible to not only survive their current stress but to thrive.
This is easier than it seems, according to science, if we can simply put one good habit on top of another, a step at a time.