Habits and Stress


One of the most of the observably true statements I’ve ever heard is, “Under stress, people regress.”

I’ve seen it in myself and others many times. In fact, the science says that stress makes us stupid. It shuts down our higher reasoning skills and puts us in a “fight or flight” mode – helpful if you’re being chased by a lion (run!), not so much if you’re stressed by a complex situation in the office.

This is where habits can be especially useful. In The Mind Map Book, Tony and Barry Buzan write,

“Every time you have a thought, the biochemical/electromagnetic resistance along the pathway carrying that thought is reduced. It is like trying to clear a path through a forest. The first time is a struggle because you have to fight your way through the undergrowth. The second time you travel that way will be easier because of the clearing you did on your first journey. The more times you travel that path, the less resistance there will be, until, after many repetitions, you have a wide, smooth track which requires little or no clearing. A similar function occurs in your brain: the more you repeat patterns or maps of thought, the less resistance there is to them. Therefore, and of greater significance, repetition in itself increases the probability of repetition. In other words the more times a mental event happens, the more likely it is to happen again.”

Let’s expand on the analogy for a sec.

Imagine you’re a peaceful explorer in the Amazon rainforest. You’ve been making various paths back and forth from your base camp in search of a lost treasure, when suddenly you find yourself being attacked and chased by an angry native with a big spear. You know that if you can make it back to camp, you’ll be safe.

Now, let’s be honest. Are you going to stop and consider the lay of the land and ponder the largest, fastest, most efficient route back to camp while he’s charging at you? Of course not! You’re gonna pick one and go!

If you’ve traveled one path a lot more than the others, then under stress, that’s the one you’ll choose. It’s already become a habit, so you don’t have to think about it, you just default to it. Hopefully, for your sake, that’s the safe and efficient route, not the dangerous sight-seeing one that goes next to the cliff.

The Army gets this. They know that under the stress of combat, soldiers are going to react; it’s just a matter of how. So they try to ingrain the right habits in them to make them more successful on the battlefield.

The best time to form good habits is during peacetime – during your ordinary, day-to-day life and normal routines.

This requires discipline. Forming new habits takes time, effort, and dogged persistence. It’s not always easy.

But good habits will make you sharper in peacetime and more effective in wartime.

When you’re in conflict with someone, having a rough day, feeling stressed, or out of your comfort zone, you want to default to the right habits, not the wrong ones.

So build those habits now. It’s worth it.

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