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Reduce Your Stress First Before You Start Building Better Habits


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It makes sense to deal with stress hormone cortisol levels first, then build good habits. 

As postdoctoral researcher in neuroscience at UCLA Alex Korb explains, there’s a very real neurological reason why your brain can’t build better habits when you’re stressed. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that focuses on long-term habits and can override your desire to watch Netflix and drink beer, instead of getting work done. The more stressed you are, the harder it is for this part of your brain to do its job. So, naturally, the less stressed you are, the easier it is to build better habits:

I have a friend who always says, “Stress takes the prefrontal cortex offline.” Stress changes the dynamics of that conversation. It weakens the prefrontal cortex. That part of your brain doesn’t have infinite resources. It can’t be eternally vigilant and so while it’s not paying attention, your striatum is like, “Let’s go eat a cookie. Let’s go drink a beer.” Anything that you can do to reduce stress can help strengthen the prefrontal cortex’s control over your habits.

Of course, this is neither fair nor easy (your bad habits may be responsible for a lot of your stress, which makes the problem a bit circular), but it does help give you a blueprint for how to start solving problems. If you’re overwhelmed with optional responsibilities, start cutting back. If they’re mandatory, ask for help. As you’re able to work through lightening the stress load, you can start reallocating that brain power to building better habits.

Neuroscience Discovers 5 Things That Will Make You Happy | Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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