Willpower and Self-Discipline, part 2

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Biochemistry and What You Eat
Did you know that willpower uses so much energy, that our blood glucose levels drop? We’ll need further study to prove that it’s the brain using it, but the connection opens some interesting doors.

Our brain monitors blood glucose levels, and most of our balanced systems seem to “prefer” a stable, steady supply. According to the research of Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, when we maintain a steady glucose level, our brain releases reserves, rather than holding back, and we have more available, enabling us to express more willpower. This is like how you might look at your bank account.  When you know you have a steady income stream, you budget and spend more comfortably.

When you have spikes and drops, you’re less inclined to spend, not knowing when the next influx is going to happen. Even when you have a spike, the lack of steadiness overrides any sense of surplus, and your brain still holds back on those reserves.

To help regulate a steady, stable glucose level that aids your willpower, keeps you feeling full and guilt free,  Nutritionist and Certified Natural Chef Giovanna Garcia of A Purified Life advises a medium piece of fruit (banana, apple, orange, pear) or 1-2 cups of berries with a handful of seeds/nuts, 1/4 avocado, or drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Having a bit of healthy fat with carbohydrates helps stabilize blood sugar rather than spike it, and triggers neurotransmitters telling your brain you’re full longer.

Willpower fatigues with use like a muscle, and needs to be rested and replenished. Exerting self-control, whether avoiding a bad habit or engaging in a new good one, still consumes glucose, so we need to be very aware of the cycle this starts. Any desire for sweets will stimulate a craving just when our ability to resist is lowest.

Awareness is key. We need to use our resources intelligently, and remember that a craving only begets more craving. There are no neurotransmitters that respond to sugar with a sense of fullness or satisfaction.

Researchers have found that, on average, people spend four hours a day resisting desires. When we’re not increasing our reserves through focus meditation and glucose intake management, we’re using up far more time than we may realize.

The amount of energy we expend stopping ourselves from doing things that don’t serve us, can better be used on getting ourselves to do things we really want to do.

This has the added benefit of getting a dopamine reward for our successes, rather than the dopamine reward for our failures. (yes, dopamine doesn’t discriminate, so we still get a short term reward for the donut, until our conscious mind kicks back in with regret and self criticism.)

Delayed Gratification is More Gratifying
When people resist temptation, their heart rate actually slows, while their heart rate variability and autonomic balance increases.  Since we know this is just one of hundreds of long term benefits, hopefully it makes it an easier choice over short term immediate gratification. Studies have shown that temptation lessens as we recognize the reward as creating the desire in the first place, thus creating stress.

If we continue to bring to awareness the alleged reward creating stress, over time and with practice, it becomes less of a shiny object of attraction. We need to think of the alleged reward as a Trickster who’s not our friend.

It may seem overly simple, but merely delaying the gratification builds the willpower muscles of the brain.  Give yourself 10 minutes of delay time, and during that delay, get some physical distance from the “temptation.”  Time and distance work cumulatively, especially with repeated behavior. The more we give ourselves this time and distance, the more we build our strength as a habit, and don’t need to exert as much effort. It literally becomes easier and easier to do what’s in our own best interests, and not succumb to self-destructive behaviors.

Over the long-term, we end up getting enormous benefits from achieving our goals, not sabotaging ourselves, feeling great, being healthy, and being in condition and in a position to really go for the big wins, not just the immediate gratification that inevitably leads to regret.

Stress Makes it Harder – Surprise!
Another complication is that stress shifts the brain toward the immediate gratification reward system.  Self judgment activates the amygdala’s fight or flight. In fight or flight, there’s no future in mind; just the immediate stress condition.  Short term will win over long term (real) desires.  Once again, our only defense is heightened awareness, and positive internal conversations, where we talk ourselves into being rational and long-term focused.

Focus sends energy to your neocortex instead of fight or flight sending it to your muscles.  To activate the neocortex, reasoning, and your self-regulatory executive function, do the following:

1. Observe your thoughts
2. Mindfully feel your feelings
3. Offer a gesture of care to yourself as if you were comforting a small child, because in a way you are.

Studies have shown that secure attachment increases willpower.  Secure attachment basically means growing up with a stable container for failures and discomfort, so we don’t seek self-soothing in other forms.

Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has published research showing that guilt and shame push us toward the very behavior we’re feeling guilty about.  The more you feel badly about x the more you’ll seek x.  Doing a study with doughnuts, participants coped with feeling badly about eating a doughnut by eating another one.  This was dubbed the “what the hell effect.”  As in “I’ve already blown it, so…”

It turns out, not surprisingly, that the more we aspire toward a positive desired outcome, rather than merely stopping ourselves from immediate gratification, the faster and easier willpower becomes habitual second nature.  Since we’re engaging more of our rational self-regulatory brain to think about what we’re doing in the larger scheme of things, we’re less driven by thoughtless chemical cravings.  This becomes a cycle of awareness and mindfulness that smooths the path leading to our deeper, long-term desires, and gives us freedom.

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