An argument with your significant other or extra traffic during your morning commute could be impacting your long-term goals more than you know. A research study from the University of Zurich demonstrated that even acute stress sabotages efforts of self-control.
Lead author Silvia Maeir noted that self-control is sensitive to agitation at multiple neural pathways, and that optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from various regions of the brain, rather than a simple on/off switch. She emphasized that this work is only the beginning of understanding the complexity of underlying mechanisms.
The studies participants, who were chosen specifically for their eating habits, were tasked with dunking their hand in ice water directly prior to making a series of 70 dietary choices.
What habits qualified them for such a task? Each participant reported as attempting to be physically active and restrictive with their food intake, but frequently consumed junk food (my kindred spirit)
Over a three hour period the participants ran through two more sets of food options, for a total of 210 choices. This method allowed the researchers to measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, at different times. For the final trial of each set participants were made to eat their selection as a part of the experiment.
After reviewing the results Maeir and her team found that stress may impair the brain’s ability to make decision through two distinct avenues,
- One that relates to the characteristics of the stimulus. In this case, taste and smell.
- The other linked to goal design. In this case, diet restrictions
These results, coupled with previous work done by Hariri et al, furthers the idea that both the amygdala and the ventral striatum (part of the brains reward system) may be linked to the influence of stimuli on valuation and choice. The amygdala is behind instant reactions and choices, while the ventral striatum helps negotiate risk, reward, and decision making.
Maeir’s work went beyond showing how different areas of the brain interact with self-control in relation to goals.
Measures of participants perceived stress level (PSL) indicated that larger differences in taste often led to self-control failure. And, as PSL rose, participants had a harder time selecting the healthiest of choices compared to their low PSL peers.
Several studies have reached the conclusion that acute stress draws attention to the here and now. Understandable as the evolution of stress primed it’s function as a reaction to immediate danger or threats. In these moments our goal should be the removal of stressors. Often this would require additional effort and time we don’t have. It’s no wonder we end up giving into instant gratification without time to pause and reflect.