Reduce stress and you will be better able to resist junk food and alcohol. There is some new and interesting research about the relationship between stress overload and the inability to resist rewards like junk food. This is yet more evidence that the brain is not made for multitasking.

Reduce Stress to Eat Healthy

Reduce stress and you will be more capable of resisting reward eating and drinking, according the research conducted by a group of psychologists at the University of New South Wales Sydney. They set up an experiment that disproves the notion that we are hard-wired to respond to rewards like junk food.

Have you ever tried to stay away from fast food or alcohol, but found hard-to-ignore signals that represent its availability are everywhere?

This psychology experiment shows why it can be so hard to direct our attention away from cues that might lead to behavior we’d like to avoid, like drinking alcohol and eating unhealthy food.

If you’re stressed, tired or otherwise straining your brain power, you will find it harder to ignore cues in the environment that signal something rewarding.

Study on Cognitive Stress and Reward Behaviors

This experiment showed for the first time that ignoring reward cues became harder as soon as participants had to perform a task while also holding other information in their memory.

Study Lead Dr. Poppy Watson explains that “We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward. But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore.”

Up until now, researchers didn’t know whether people’s general inability to ignore reward cues is just something we have no control over or whether we do use our executive control processes to constantly work against distractions. But now it’s become clear that the latter is the case — although unfortunately this resource is limited.

How the Reward Research Was Conducted

  • In the experiment, participants looked at a screen that contained various shapes including a colorful circle.
  • They were told they could earn money if they successfully located and looked at the diamond shape, but that if they looked at the colored circle — the distractor — they would not receive the money.
  • They were also told that the presence of a blue circle meant they’d get more money (if they completed the diamond task) than the presence of an orange circle.
  • In the high-memory load version of the experiment, participants were asked to memorize a sequence of numbers in addition to locating the diamond.
  • This additional task meant they had fewer attention resources available to focus on the diamond task.
  • The scientists then used eye tracking to measure where on the screen participants were looking.

Conclusions of Reward Research Study

The study showed that a high level of cognitive stress make it more difficult for the study participants to resist the reward.  

  • Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward — the colored circles — even though they were paid to try and ignore them.
  • The circles became harder to ignore when people were asked to also memorize numbers.
  • When they were overloaded by too many tasks, they looked at the colored circle associated with the high reward around 50% of the time, even though this was entirely counterproductive.
  • The findings demonstrate that people need full access to cognitive control processes to try and suppress unwanted signals of reward in the environment.
  • This is especially relevant for circumstances where people are trying to ignore cues and improve their behavior, e.g. consuming less alcohol or fast food
  • There’s this strong known link between where your attention is and what you eventually do, so if you find it hard to focus your attention away from reward cues, it’s even harder to act accordingly.

Reduce Stress and Resist Reward Eating

That study explains why people might find it harder to focus on dieting or beating an addiction if they are under a lot of stress.

According to Dr. Watson, “Constant worrying or stress is the equivalent to the high-memory load scenario of our experiment, impacting on people’s ability to use their executive control resources in a way that’s helping them manage unwanted cues in the environment.”

This means that if you are under a lot of stress, your best strategy is to entirely avoid situations where you’ll be tempted by rewards such as junk food.

Click here to read full study about how to reduce stress and lose weight.