Although stress can motivate some people to overeat or go on a shopping spree, it can also encourage them to stick to their good habits, such as eating healthily and exercising, according to a new study.

The research, conducted by scientists from University of Southern California (USC) and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, showed that when people are stressed and tired, they are just as likely to stick with positive habits as they are to self-sabotage.

The experts used five experiments to add a new twist to the established notion that we have finite resources for self-regulation, implying that when people are already stressed or tired, it’s more challenging to take control of their actions.

The study revealed that lack of control does not automatically result in indulgence or hedonism, explained leading researchers and USC Professors Wendy Wood and David Neal. It’s the fundamental habits that matter, for better or worse, they explained.

Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC, said:

“When we try to change our behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self-control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we’re tired and don’t have the energy to exert self-control.”

Wood is one of the leading experts on habit around the world. Habits are known as the automatic behaviors that allow us to properly function each day. For example, because of our habits, each morning we remember how to brush our teeth and how to get to work.

Our health is significantly affected by our learned habits. Overeating, smoking, and exercise are major risk factors for serious diseases (either increasing or reducing risk).

In fact, two main reasons people in the U.S. die before those in other high-income countries are because of smoking and obesity, according to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences.

Although the majority of efforts to prevent disease center on self-control, the new study suggests that the most effective way to prevent disease may be realizing how to let go.

“Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals,” Wood said. “If you are somebody who doesn’t have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important.”

A recent study demonstrated that our reaction to stress today can predict our health tomorrow.

In one experiment, the researchers observed students for a semester, including during exam time. They discovered that when students were stressed and tired during these exam periods, they were even more likely to stick to old habits.

Wood explained that it was as if the students did not have enough energy to do something they were not use to.

The participants who ate unhealthy breakfasts, like pastries or doughnuts, during the semester, ate even more unhealthy food during testing periods. The same results were seen among those who habitually ate a healthy breakfast, such as oatmeal. These students were more likely to stick to their routine and ate particularly well in the morning when under stress.

Comparably, the participants who habitually read the newspaper every day during the semester were more likely to stick to this habit during exams, even when they didn’t have as much free time.

Those who regularly went to the gym were even more likely to go and exercise under stress, according to the report. An earlier study showed that exercise may help people deal with anxiety and stress for some time after their workout.

Wood continued:

“You might expect that when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn’t read the paper at all, but instead they fell back on their reading habits. Habits don’t require much willpower and thought and deliberation.

So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be “how can you form healthy, productive habits?” What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that people repeat it often and it becomes part of their daily routine.”

Written by Sarah Glynn