How Stress Can Wreck Your New Year’s Resolutions – and What To Do About It

January 04, 2022

Resolutions. Goals. Intentions. Vision boards. Whatever you call them, you have most likely spent some time reflecting on how you want to improve yourself and your life in the coming new year. This opportunity is one of the great benefits of turning the calendar to the beautifully wide open blank pages of a new year. At the core of our IWC culture is the commitment to “pursue excellence” – and at this time of year, becoming better versions of ourselves is top of mind for almost everyone else, too. In these early days of 2022, energy is high and motivation abounds. It’s an exciting time!

And yet, studies consistently show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions will be abandoned by the time February comes. In just 30 short days, many of us go from resolved and enthused to discouraged, overwhelmed, or simply no longer interested. What happens? Clearly it requires more than just vision to maintain New Year’s goals. Motivation and endurance are key. Amidst all the reasons why so many of us seem to lose motivation for our resolutions, one motivation killer is important to consider…


It comes in a dizzying variety of forms, and it’s a reality that most of us know well in our daily lives. Then, over the last two years, we have added to the normal stresses of life all the turmoil of COVID-19 – years in which the leading dictionaries chose as their “word of the year” terms like pandemic, quarantine, doomscrolling, coronavirus, and vaccine (or vax, as the Oxford English Dictionary chose).

And here’s what we know about stress and motivation: they don’t play very well together.


Scientists from Emory University advanced a theory in their paper Can't or Won't? Immunometabolic Constraints on Dopaminergic Drive that links chronic stress and our dopamine levels. Most of us know dopamine as the neurotransmitter that makes us feel happy and enhances pleasure. But it also is responsible for keeping our brains seeking novelty and exploring – essential impulses for staying energized and motivated to make the new patterns and habits we all resolve on January 1st. Chronic inflammation has been shown to reduce dopamine levels. And what causes chronic inflammation? Well, many things. But stress – both physical and mental – triggers an inflammatory response in the body. Chronic stress produces chronic inflammation, which causes chronically low dopamine levels. Then the drive you need to maintain your new resolutions fades fast.

The strain imposed by chronic stress also undermines our confidence and sense of capacity. In a new book called Good Anxiety, neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki demonstrates the difference between bad anxiety and what she calls “good anxiety.” The point about bad anxiety is that it works against us by making it harder for us to regulate our emotions and respond properly to external and internal stimuli of various kinds. Our bodies become more sensitive, which in turn makes us feel less confident, more insecure, and therefore less able to summon the motivation we need to improve. It is a vicious cycle. And chronic stress is at the heart of it.

We all know that stress is not a matter of if we will experience it but rather how we cope with it. And if we want to have any chance of achieving the changes we desire, then we have to take steps to boost the body’s natural regulators of positive emotion and motivation to keep the effects of stress at bay.

The good news is, we can.

There are probably as many ways to relax and decompress from stress as there are people on the planet. Through trial and error each of us finds the things that most serve us in stress reduction. But there are also some stress busters that are backed by science. Meditation is one example. And so is massage therapy.

A 2005 review of the studies on massage therapy’s benefits, published in the International Journal of Neuroscience, found that massage therapy had the following beneficial impact on the body’s biochemical response to stress:

  • Cortisol (the primary stress hormone) decreased 31%, on average
  • Serotonin (a neurotransmitter that stabilizes mood, sleep, and your sense of wellbeing) increased by 28%, on average
  • Dopamine increased by 31%, on average

A more recent study, published in the September, 2020 issue of Scientific Reports, found that massage  that specifically stimulated the vagus nerve, and thus the parasympathetic system, was highly effective at increasing heart rate variability, which moves subjects into a state of relaxation. In “fight or flight” stress mode, heart rate becomes elevated and less variable, so increasing heart rate variability is an excellent way to distance your body from a stress response. Massage therapy can be an excellent way to do this!

So as you begin making progress on your New Year’s resolutions this week, take a few moments to strategize about stress – where you encounter it, how you can reduce it, and how to help yourself relax. With more effective stress management, you may find that you have more motivation and endurance to help you chase your goals well into 2022!




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