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Christmas Stress? Why Anxiety-Fueled Indulgences Don't Bring Joy

New research on stress explains why, despite giving in to that extra eggnog to help cope, we may not feel all that happy and satisfied afterwards.

On this holiday eve, Danielle Sepulveres admits she’s again joined scores of other Americans wrapped in Christmas stress as she worries about money spent, work time missed, and her desire to somehow see every friend and family member.

The medley of seasonal anxiety and a ready supply of delicious, high-fat, high-sugar holiday treats causes many revelers to gobble more goodies than usual as a coping mechanism. But not Sepulveres.

“The funny thing is, I don’t eat more, but it does make me want to drink,” said Sepulveres, 33, a New Jersey author and public speaker. “I say yes to drinking and sex.”

Food, booze, and sex are all what brain scientists call “rewards,” and stress has long been known to increase our motivation to seek reward.

But new research from the University of Geneva, in Switzerland, may have teased apart the nexus of stress, indulgence, and the reason why, despite giving in to that extra eggnog, we tend not to feel all that happy and satisfied afterwards.

The study, released Tuesday and published in Journal of Experimental Psychology, used human volunteers and may offer a vital behavioral breakthrough, said psychologist Mary Alvord, an associate adjunct professor at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and an expert in self-control and stress.

“It’s not just in terms of holiday eating and self-control in terms of drinking, but there could be further implications,” including strategies for changing unwanted choices.

The Swiss study built on previous experiments that used lab animals. In earlier animal tests, scientists showed that stressed animals will work harder by, say, pushing a lever, to obtain treats than will animals not under stress.

In other words, stressed animals “wanted” that reward more.

But it turns out that, once they got it, the animals did not “like” the reward any more than non-stressed critters. They didn’t find it any more satisfying, scientists determined.

That meant that “wanting” and “liking” involve two separate brain processes.

Stress has fueled countless jokes about salving dashed love with a big bowl of Ben and Jerry’s. But the Swiss team is the first to show that not only will people work harder for a reward if they've been stressed, they won't necessarily enjoy the reward any more than people who aren’t stressed. Wanting and liking may be rooted in separate brain systems in people, too.

“If the pleasure aspect is not significantly different if you are stressed or not, that implies that if you can delay the gratification, and seeking the pleasure, we may have more strategies to help break the cycle,” Alvord said. That could mean that stressed people could choose to do something as simple as separating themselves in space or time from a tempting reward by, say, walking out of a room.

The experiment used 36 men and women from the university. First, they were conditioned, like Pavlov’s dog, to associate shapes on a screen with the scent of chocolate. Next, they were taught that squeezing a handgrip in response to the shapes could release near them a pleasing, chocolate scent.

Half of the participants were then exposed to a mild stress - asked to hold one hand in uncomfortably cold water while an observer stared at them and timed how long they could keep their hands submerged. The control group held their hands in warm water.

The researchers discovered that “during the presentation of the reward-associated cue, the stress group mobilized more effort (squeezing the handgrip significantly more often, trying to release the scent) than the stress-free group,” the study reported.

Even so, “the perceived pleasantness of the chocolate odor was not significantly different in the stress and the stress-free group.”

In other words, while they worked harder to smell chocolate, the stressed people didn’t enjoy sniffing any more than did the calm test subjects.

Being able to tell ourselves that we won’t really like a reward more if we're stressed could reinforce our willpower and help us walk away.

Learning that we won’t fully relish an anxiety-fueled treat could bolster our resolve and help us walk away, Alvord said. Then, with the cue out of sight (or smell) we’ll find it much easier to resist.

Sepulveres, who wrote a comic spoken-word performance piece called "Take Two Xanax and Call Me When You Land," about her extreme flying anxiety, said she often arrives at airports early so she can find a bar. The pre-flight cocktail, she said, seems even more satisfying than usual, but that’s probably because she'd told herself the booze is medicinal and, therefore, guilt-free.

Likewise, during the holidays, “when I do decide to indulge, it feels three times better than if it was a regular Tuesday night glass of wine.”

But according to the Swiss group’s research, Sepulveres' anxiety-driven pleasure sensation may be rooted in the medicinal tale she tells herself - not because the extra drinks truly taste any better or really ease the stress of the season.