Being tired, stressed or full of worries is one of the biggest barriers to weight loss, psychologists find.
While people are in states like these, it is much more difficult for them to ignore tempting rewards, such as high-calorie foods.
In this psychology study, people whose memories were overloaded had trouble controlling themselves.
Dr Poppy Watson, the study’s first author, explained:
“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.”
In other words, it gets harder to ignore tasty foods when your mind is busy.
Dr Watson said:
“This is especially relevant for circumstances where people are trying to ignore cues and improve their behaviour, e.g. consuming less alcohol or fast food.”
For the study, people were given a test of how well they could control their attention, while they were also being given other things to think about.
For example, in one study they had to memorise a sequence of numbers.
This simulates the situation where a person has a lot of worries on their mind.
The results showed that when people had to memorise the numbers as well, they found it much harder to avoid a tempting reward.
Dr Watson said:
“Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward — the coloured circles — even though they were paid to try and ignore them.”
The key is to avoid situations that involve temptation when tired, said Dr Watson:
“If you are under a lot of cognitive pressure (stress, or tiredness) you should really try and avoid situations where you’ll be tempted by signals.
You need to be in the right frame of mind to be in a situation where you can stop yourself from getting distracted and going down a path where you don’t want to go.”
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the journal Psychological Science (Watson et al., 2019).