Moderate Stress Significantly Hinders Self-Control, Study

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Moderate StressNew research published in the journal Neuron is shedding light on the effects of stress on the neural pathways in the human brain, and how this interaction affects self-control.

Studies show that self-control is affected by multiple points within the neural network, and that being able to exercise self-control requires a balance between various regions in the brain. However, what hasn’t been fully understood yet are how the cognitive processes, such as self-control, change when individuals placed in stressful conditions.

For this particular study, researchers recruited participants who were trying to diet and exercise in order to maintain a healthier lifestyle. While having their brain activities tracked with MRI scans, all of the participants were asked to repeatedly pick between two foods shown on a screen—one was an unhealthy, but tasty option and the other was a healthy, but not as tasty option—to eat after the session. All of the options were tailored to each participant to account for food allergies or intolerances.

Twenty-nine of the individuals were asked before the food test to submerge one hand in cold water for a couple of minutes to stimulate a moderately-stressful condition. Researchers discovered that “stressed” individuals were more likely to pick taste over healthiness when selecting food options, indicating that stress inhibits self-control by influencing individuals to pick options that are more immediately rewarding (taste), as opposed to the long-term reward of eating healthy.

Researchers also noted that there were significant changes in the brains of the stressed participants, particularly in the form of increased connectivity between specific regions in the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and striatal areas—these regions are associated with the perception of taste. There was also a reduced connectivity between regions associated with self-control.

These findings show that even moderate stress, which is far more common than extreme stress among the general population, can impede self-control.

Sources for Today’s Article:
Maier, S.U., et al., “Acute Stress Impairs Self-Control in Goal-Directed Choice by Altering Multiple Functional Connections within the Brain’s Decision Circuits,” Neuron 2015; 87(1): 621-631,
McIntosh, J., “Stress found to influence brain networks and reduce self-control,” Medical News Today web site, August 6, 2015;