Did you know that it is actually scientifically possible to measure your capacity for self control?
It doesn’t even require some sort of Doctor Kevorkian procedure of opening up your cranium or taking some master-minded psychological test. In fact, it involves the heart, which metaphorically is a pretty lovable concept.
Thanks to extensive research and experiments conducted off of understanding the way our body can respond to stress, researchers have discovered that during moments where we require self-control, our heart rate variability (HRV), or the normal variation in the time interval between heart beats, goes up when our resistance to temptation goes up.
Contrarily of course, if our heart rate variability - think heart rate a little faster and thus more rhythmic - goes down, so does our willpower to resist.
So how do we work to increase our HRV, then? Answers, please!
During stressful situations, our primitive fight or flight response kicks in, and as our bodies gear up, they get ready to take action by increasing heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing.
In the days of the Stone Age, this would be great for out maneuvering a surprise incident with a python; but, in modern times our temptations illicit the same fight or flight response and actually makes us more impulsive and likely to give in by decreasing HRV.
Luckily, we also have the pause-and-plan response, labeled as such by psychologist Suzanne Segerstrom. This has the complete opposite effect on our body than the fight-or-flight response by lowering heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, increasing HRV, and allowing a sense of calm and relaxation to come over us.¹
Did You Know?
How to Strengthen Your Pause & Plan REsponse
I would be remiss if I did not say finding what works for you is completely individual for everyone, but ultimately you have to be willing to embrace self-control and the building or breaking of habits as a process, and not something that you can just do a couple of times and expect to stick for good.
I have summarized below some research proven methods to start implementing into your life. Pick one to implement each week until all have become healthy habits.
This is essentially like going to the gym, but for your brain. When you ask your brain to focus on one thing, your breath, or even nothing at all, you are actively working your mental muscle.
The daily practice of as little as 5 minutes of meditation can enhance a wide range of self-control skills, including attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Get started by:
At the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, two researchers – one a psychologist, one a biologist – conducted a study for a new treatment in enhancing self-control, in which they were completely stunned by the findings.
Six men and eighteen women were given the treatment for two months, with the ultimate goal to improve attention span and be able to ignore distractions. However, the treatment was so effective they not only increased their focus in these areas, but reduced their smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake without anyone having asked them to.
They were also less impulsive, more frequently on time, eating less junk food and more in control of their emotions. What was the treatment? Exercise².
Dr. Kelly McGonigal writes in her book, The Willpower Instinct, that “Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered.”
It has immediate, as well as long-term effects. For example, fifteen minutes on the treadmill can reduce cravings, which researchers have seen with dieters and smokers.
Long-term effects are even more impressive, as exercise works just as well as the antidepressant Prozac in elevating mood and decreasing feelings of depression. Furthermore, exercise increases baseline heart rate variability, increases brain cells, and overall makes your brain and body bigger, stronger, and faster.³
This begs the question, how much of the miracle “drug” do you need? When writing your goals, set a goal relevant to working out that is realistic and that you know will be achievable.
If there was a time you fell off the fitness wagon before by doing too much too soon, well.. let’s not repeat that mistake! There would be no point in setting a goal that you know has failed before or that you may very well abandon in a few weeks.
Get your Rest
I will never forget something my Uncle Robbie, who trained for the Olympics in downhill skiing many years ago, said, "Alysa, never forget that an hour of sleep before midnight is worth two hours."
He had a point there, because the likelihood for many of us getting over six hours of sleep once the clock strikes midnight is pretty slim. Kind of reminds you of Cinderella, doesn't it? Except instead of turning from a princess to a maid, you turn into a hot mess.
Getting six or less hours of sleep has immense impacts on our daily functioning, as studies show that "the effects of sleep deprivation on your brain are equivalent to being mildly intoxicated--a state that many of us can attest does little for self control," says Dr. McGonigal.
Sleep deprivation saps willpower throughout the day, so bring your habits full circle by trying out practicing your 5 minutes of meditation before bed. Studies show that this helps relax you and allows your brain to go from busy and high functioning, down to a nice, restorative ideal. Ahhhhh, let the sheep jump.
This is one of the more popular health topics that circulates through the health world, so I won't go into detail on what you should be eating and why it is helpful to willpower, because I have a feeling you already know about the what and why.
It is how that often the harder of the three to do. Here are some simple strategies to add in to your week (and don't just try, do them).
Spend Quality time with loved ones
We are social creatures, and enjoying the company of loved ones can be very therapeutic for relieving stress. Stress, whether physical or psychological, is the enemy of self-control.
Now, I understand that the stay-at-home mom probably often thinks "get me away from these little gremlins!" so her quality time may be with close friends and away from the kids. A working father on the other hand, may have the opposite need, as he isn't around the kids as often.
Fall Off, Get back on
You will slip up at some point. Just accept it! Drop your ego and acknowledge that you are no more perfect than any other human being.
Allow yourself to feel okay with making mistakes, because mistakes mean you're growing. However, let's not be okay with making them over and over again. Otherwise, your self-growth will not only come to a screeching halt, but you will start to drive yourself crazy!
Avoid the crazy failure cycle by allowing time to reflect on what caused the failure in the first place and then have the self-love and determination to pick yourself back up, fix it, and keep it movin'.
Get the Worksheet
Within the Essentials Program, there are two science and research based worksheets to help you implement long-term change with your health goals. The first is a goal setting worksheet, which will teach you how to properly set goals.
The second worksheet is how to stick with these goals by building up your self-control and good habits while breaking bad habits. It's time to break away from the 92% of people who can't finish out their New Year's Resolution and become part of the 8% who will.⁵
Diamond, D. (2013, January 02). Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year's Resolutions. Here's How They Do It. Retrieved February 17, 2018, from https://www.forbes.com/sites/dandiamond/2013/01/01/just-8-of-people-achieve-their-new-years-resolutions-heres-how-they-did-it/#6389e3d3596b
1, 3. McGonigal, K. (2013). The willpower instinct: how self-control works, why it matters, and what you can do to get more of it. New York: Avery.
2. Oaten, Megan, and Ken Cheng. "Improved Self-control: The Benefits of a Regular Program of Academic Study." International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders. January 17, 2017. Accessed December 17, 2018. https://researchers.mq.edu.au/en/publications/improved-self-control-the-benefits-of-a-regular-program-of-academ.