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The Willpower Instinct: Your Body Was Born to Resist Cheesecake
I starts with a flash of excitement. Your brain buzzes, and your heart pounds in your chest. It’s like your whole body is saying Yes. Then the anxiety hits. Your lungs tighten and your muscles tense. You start to feel light-headed and a little nauseous. You are almost trembling, you want this so much. But you can’t. But you want. But you can’t! You know what you need to do, but you aren’t sure you can handle this feeling without falling apart or giving in.
Welcome to the world of craving. Maybe it’s a craving for a cigarette, a drink, or a triple latte. Maybe it’s the sight of a last-chance super clearance sale, a lottery ticket, or a doughnut in the bakery window. In such a moment, you face a choice: follow the craving, or find the inner strength to control yourself. This is the moment you need to say “I won’t” when every cell in your body is saying “I want.” You know when you’ve met a real willpower challenge because you feel it in your body. It’s not some abstract argument between what is right and what is wrong. It feels like a battle happening inside of you—a battle between two parts of yourself, or what often feels like two very different people. Sometimes the craving wins. Sometimes the part of you that knows better, or wants better for yourself, wins.
Why you succeed or fail at these willpower challenges can seem like a mystery. One day you resist, and the next you succumb. You might ask yourself, “What was I thinking!” But a better question might be, “What was my body doing?” Science is discovering that self-control is a matter of physiology, not just psychology. It’s a temporary state of both mind and body that gives you the strength and calm to override your impulses. Researchers are beginning to understand what that state looks like, and why the complexity of our modern world often interferes with it. The good news is that you can learn to shift your physiology into that state when you need your willpower the most. You can also train the body’s capacity to stay in this state, so that when temptation strikes, your instinctive response is one of self-control.
A TALE OF TWO THREATS
To understand what happens in the body when we exercise self-control, we need to start with an important distinction: the difference between a saber-toothed tiger and a strawberry cheesecake. In one important respect, the tiger and the cheesecake are alike—both can derail your goal to live a long and healthy life. But in other ways, they are critically different threats. What the brain and body do to deal with them will be very different. Lucky for you, evolution has endowed you with exactly the resources you need to protect yourself from both.
WHEN DANGER STRIKES
Let’s start with a little trip back in time, to a place where fierce saber-toothed tigers once stalked their prey.3 Imagine you are in the Serengeti in East Africa, minding your own early hominid business. Perhaps you are scavenging for lunch among the carcasses scattered across the savannah. Things are going well—is that an abandoned, freshly killed antelope you spy?—when all of a sudden, holy sh@t! A saber-toothed tiger is lurking in the branches of a nearby tree. Perhaps he’s savoring his antelope appetizer and contemplating his second course: you. He looks eager to sink those eleven-inch teeth into your flesh, and unlike your twenty-first-century self, this predator has no qualms about satisfying his cravings. Don’t expect him to be on a diet, eyeing your curves as a bit too calorie-rich.
Fortunately, you are not the first person to find yourself in this very situation. Many of your long-ago ancestors faced this enemy and others like him. And so you have inherited from your ancestors an instinct that helps you respond to any threat that requires fighting or running for your life. This instinct is appropriately called the fight-or-flight stress response. You know the feeling: heart pounding, jaw clenching, senses on high alert. These changes in the body are no accident. They are coordinated in a sophisticated way by the brain and nervous system to make sure you act quickly and with every ounce of energy you have.
Here’s what happened, physiologically, when you spotted that saber-toothed tiger: The information from your eyes first made its way to an area of the brain called the amygdala, which functions as your own personal alarm system. This alarm system sits in the middle of your brain and lives to detect possible emergencies. When it notices a threat, its central location makes it easy to get the message out to other areas of your brain and body. When the alarm system got the signal from your eyeballs that there was a saber-toothed tiger eyeing you, it launched a series of signals to your brain and body that prompted the fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones were released from your adrenal glands. Energy—in the form of fats and sugar—was released into your bloodstream from your liver. Your respiratory system got your lungs pumping to fuel the body with extra oxygen. Your cardiovascular system kicked into high gear to make sure the energy in your bloodstream would get to the muscles doing the fighting or the fleeing. Every cell in your body got the memo: time to show what you’re made of.
While your body was getting ready to defend your life, the alarm system in your brain was busy trying to make sure that you didn’t get in the body’s way. It focused your attention and senses on the saber-toothed tiger and your surroundings, making sure no stray thoughts distracted you from the threat at hand. The alarm system also prompted a complex change in brain chemicals that inhibited your prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in charge of impulse control. That’s right, the fight-or-flight response wants to make you more impulsive. The rational, wise, and deliberative prefrontal cortex is effectively put to sleep—the better to make sure you don’t chicken out or overthink your escape. Speaking of escape, I’d say your best bet in this situation is to start running. Now.
The fight-or-flight response is one of nature’s greatest gifts to mankind: the built-in ability of your body and brain to devote all of their energy to saving your butt in an emergency. You aren’t going to waste energy—physical or mental—on anything that doesn’t help you survive the immediate crisis. So when the fight-or-flight response takes over, the physical energy that might a moment ago have been devoted to digesting your morning snack or repairing a hangnail is redirected to the task of immediate self-preservation. Mental energy that was focused on finding your dinner or planning your next great cave painting is rechanneled into present-moment vigilance and rapid action. In other words, the fight-or-flight stress response is an energy-management instinct. It decides how you are going to spend your limited physical and mental energy.
A NEW KIND OF THREAT
Still in the savannah of the Serengeti, fleeing the saber-toothed tiger? Sorry about that. I apologize if our trip back in time was a bit stressful, but it was a necessary detour if we want to understand the biology of self-control. Let’s come back to today, away from the prowl of now-extinct predators. Catch your breath, relax a little. Let’s find our way somewhere safer and more pleasant.
How about a stroll down your local Main Street? Imagine it now: It’s a beautiful day, with bright sun and a gentle breeze. The birds in the trees are singing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” when all of a sudden—BAM! In a bakery display case, there sits the most delectable strawberry cheesecake you have ever seen. A radiant red glaze glistens over its smooth, creamy surface. A few carefully placed strawberry slices bring to mind the taste of childhood summers. Before you can say, “Oh, wait, I’m on a diet,” your feet are moving toward the door, your hand is pulling the handle, and bells chime your tongue-hanging, mouth-drooling arrival.
What’s going on in the brain and body now? A few things. First, your brain is temporarily taken over by the promise of reward. At the sight of that strawberry cheesecake, your brain launches a neurotransmitter called dopamine from the middle of your brain into areas of the brain that control your attention, motivation, and action. Those little dopamine messengers tell your brain, “Must get cheesecake NOW, or suffer a fate worse than death.” This might explain the near-automatic movement of your feet and hands into the bakery. (Whose hand is that? Is that my hand on the door? Yes, it is. Now, how much is that cheesecake?) While all this is happening, your blood sugar drops. As soon as your brain anticipates your mouth’s first creamy bite, it releases a neurochemical that tells the body to take up whatever energy is circulating in the bloodstream. The body’s logic is this: A slice of cheesecake, high in sugar and fat, is going to produce a major spike in blood sugar. To prevent an unsightly sugar coma and the rare (but never pretty) death by cheesecake, you need to lower the sugar currently in the bloodstream. How kind of the body to look out for you in this way! But this drop in blood sugar can leave you feeling a little shaky and cranky, making you crave the cheesecake even more. Hmmm, sneaky. I don’t want to sound like a cheesecake conspiracy theorist, but if it’s a contest between the cheesecake and your good intention to diet, I’d say the cheesecake is winning.
But wait! Just as in the Serengeti, you have a secret weapon: willpower. You remember willpower—the ability to do what really matters, even when it’s difficult? Right now, what really matters isn’t the momentary pleasure of cheesecake molecules hitting your palate. Part of you knows that you have bigger goals. Goals like health, happiness, and fitting into your pants tomorrow. This part of you recognizes that the cheesecake threatens your long-term goals. And so it will do whatever it can to deal with this threat. This is your willpower instinct.
But unlike the saber-toothed tiger, the cheesecake is not the real threat. Think about it: That cheesecake cannot do anything to you, your health, or your waistline unless you pick up the fork. That’s right: This time, the enemy is within. You don’t need to flee the bakery (although it might not hurt). And you definitely don’t need to kill the cheesecake (or the baker). But you do need to do something about those inner cravings. You can’t exactly kill a desire, and because the cravings are inside your mind and body, there’s no obvious escape. The fight-or-flight stress response, which pushes you toward your most primitive urges, is exactly what you don’t need right now. Self-control requires a different approach to self-preservation—one that helps you handle this new kind of threat.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE : WHAT IS THE THREAT?
We’re used to seeing temptation and trouble outside of ourselves: the dangerous doughnut, the sinful cigarette, the enticing Internet. But self-control points the mirror back at ourselves, and our inner worlds of thoughts, desires, emotions, and impulses. For your willpower challenge, identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained. What is the thought or feeling that makes you want to do whatever it is you don’t want to do? If you aren’t sure, try some field observation. Next time you’re tempted, turn your attention inward.
THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT: PAUSE AND PLAN
Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, studies how states of mind like stress and hope influence the body. She has found that, just like stress, self-control has a biological signature. The need for self-control sets into motion a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. Segerstrom calls those changes the pause-and-plan response, which couldn’t look more different from the fight-or-flight response.
You’ll recall from our trip to the Serengeti that a fight-or-flight stress response starts when you recognize an external threat. Your brain and body then go into the self-defense mode of attack or escape. The pause-and-plan response differs in one very crucial way: It starts with the perception of an internal conflict, not an external threat. You want to do one thing (smoke a cigarette, supersize your lunch, visit inappropriate websites at work), but know you shouldn’t. Or you know you should do something (file your taxes, finish a project, go to the gym), but you’d rather do nothing. This internal conflict is its own kind of threat: Your instincts are pushing you toward a potentially bad decision. What’s needed, therefore, is protection of yourself by yourself. This is what self-control is all about. The most helpful response will be to slow you down, not speed you up (as a fight-or-flight response does). And this is precisely what the pause-and-plan response does. The perception of an internal conflict triggers changes in the brain and body that help you slow down and control your impulses.
THIS IS YOUR BRAIN AND BODY ON WILLPOWER
Like the fight-or-flight response, the pause-and-plan response begins in the brain. Just as the alarm system of your brain is always monitoring what you hear, see, and smell, other areas are keeping track of what’s going on inside of you. This self-monitoring system is distributed throughout the brain, connecting the self-control regions of the prefrontal cortex with areas of the brain that keep track of your body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. One important job of this system is to keep you from making stupid mistakes, like breaking a six-month stretch of sobriety, yelling at your boss, or ignoring your overdue credit card bills. The self-monitoring system is just waiting to detect warning signs—in the form of thoughts, emotions, and sensations—that you are about to do something you will later regret. When your brain recognizes such a warning, our good friend the prefrontal cortex jumps into action to help you make the right choice. To help the prefrontal cortex, the pause-and-plan response redirects energy from the body to the brain. For self-control, you don’t need legs ready to run or arms ready to punch, but a well-fueled brain ready to flex its power.
As we saw with the fight-or-flight response, the pause-and-plan response doesn’t stop in the brain. Remember, your body has already started to respond to that cheesecake. Your brain needs to bring the body on board with your goals and put the brakes on your impulses. To do this, your prefrontal cortex will communicate the need for self-control to lower brain regions that regulate your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and other automatic functions. The pause-and-plan response drives you in the opposite direction of the fight-or-flight response. Instead of speeding up, your heart slows down, and your blood pressure stays normal. Instead of hyperventilating like a madman, you take a deep breath. Instead of tensing muscles to prime them for action, your body relaxes a little.
The pause-and-plan response puts your body into a calmer state, but not too sedate. The goal is not to paralyze you in the face of internal conflict, but to give you freedom. By keeping you from immediately following your impulses, the pause-and-plan response gives you the time for more flexible, thoughtful action. From this state of mind and body, you can choose to walk away from the cheesecake, with both your pride and your diet intact.
While the pause-and-plan response is as innate to our human nature as the fight-or-flight response, you’ve no doubt noticed that it doesn’t always feel as instinctive as, say, eating the cheesecake. To understand why the willpower instinct doesn’t always kick in, we need to dive a little deeper into the biology of both stress and self-control.
THE BODY’S WILLPOWER “RESERVE”
The single best physiological measurement of the pause-and-plan response is something called heart rate variability—a measurement most people have never heard of, but one that provides an amazing window into the body’s state of stress or calm. Everybody’s heart rate varies to some degree. This is easy to feel when you run up the stairs and your heart rate soars. But if you’re healthy, your heart rate has had some normal ups and downs even as you’ve read this page. We’re not talking dangerous arrhythmias here.
Just little variations. Your heart speeds up a bit when you inhale: buh-dum buh-dum buh-dum. It slows down again when you exhale: buh-dum buh-dum buh-dum. This is good. This is healthy. It means that your heart is getting signals from both branches of your autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system, which revs the body into action, and the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes relaxation and healing in the body.
When people are under stress, the sympathetic nervous system takes over, which is part of the basic biology that helps you fight or flee. Heart rate goes up, and variability goes down. The heart gets “stuck” at a higher rate—contributing to the physical feelings of anxiety or anger that accompany the fight-or-flight response. In contrast, when people successfully exert self-control, the parasympathetic nervous system steps in to calm stress and control impulsive action. Heart rate goes down, but variability goes up. When this happens, it contributes to a sense of focus and calm. Segerstrom first observed this physiological signature of self-control when she asked hungry students not to eat freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies. (It was a cruel setup, actually—the students had been asked to fast in preparation for a taste test. When they arrived, they were taken into a room with a tempting display of warm chocolate-chip cookies, chocolate candy, and carrots. Then they were told: Eat all the carrots you want, but don’t touch the cookies or candy. Those are for the next participants. Reluctantly, they had to resist the sweets—and that’s when heart rate variability went up. The lucky control participants who were asked to “resist” the carrots but enjoy all the cookies and candy they wanted? No change.) Heart rate variability is such a good index of willpower that you can use it to predict who will resist temptation, and who will give in. For example, recovering alcoholics whose heart rate variability goes up when they see a drink are more likely to stay sober. Recovering alcoholics who show the opposite response—their heart rate variability drops when they see a drink—have a greater risk of relapse. Studies also show that people with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations. They are also less likely to give up on difficult tasks, even when they initially fail or receive critical feedback. These findings have led psychologists to call heart rate variability the body’s “reserve” of willpower—a physiological measure of your capacity for self-control. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever temptation strikes.
Why are some people lucky enough to face willpower challenges with high heart rate variability, while others meet temptation at a distinct physiological disadvantage? Many factors influence your willpower reserve, from what you eat (plant-based, unprocessed foods help; junk food doesn’t) to where you live (poor air quality decreases heart rate variability—yes, L.A.’s smog may be contributing to the high percentage of movie stars in rehab). Anything that puts a stress on your mind or body can interfere with the physiology of self-control, and by extension, sabotage your willpower. Anxiety, anger, depression, and loneliness are all associated with lower heart rate variability and less self-control. Chronic pain and illness can also drain your body and brain’s willpower reserve. But there are just as many things you can do that shift the body and mind toward the physiology of self-control. The focus meditation you learned in the last chapter is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve the biological basis of willpower. It not only trains the brain, but also increases heart rate variability. Anything else that you do to reduce stress and take care of your health—exercise, get a good night’s sleep, eat better, spend quality time with friends and family, participate in a religious or spiritual practice—will improve your body’s willpower reserve.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: BREATHE YOUR WAY TO SELF-CONTROL
You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges.4 It’s a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you’re staring down a cheesecake. Start by timing yourself to see how many breaths you normally take in one minute. Then begin to slow the breath down without holding your breath (that will only increase stress). For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely (pursing your lips and imagining that you are exhaling through a straw in your mouth can help). Exhaling fully will help you breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling. If you don’t quite get down to four breaths a minute, don’t worry. Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute.
Research shows that regular practice of this technique can make you more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve. One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder. Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet. And because it takes only one to two minutes of breathing at this pace to boost your willpower reserve, it’s something you can do whenever you face a willpower challenge.
One of my students, Nathan, worked as a physician’s assistant at the local hospital. It was a rewarding but stressful job that involved both direct patient care and administrative duties. He found that the slowed-breathing exercise helped him think clearly and make better decisions under pressure. It was so useful, he taught it to his coworkers. They, too, started slowing down their breathing to prepare for stressful situations such as talking to a patient’s family, or to help deal with the physical strain of working a long shift without enough sleep. Nathan even started suggesting it to patients, to help them deal with anxiety or get through an uncomfortable medical procedure. Many of the patients felt as though they had no control over what was happening to them. Slowing down the breath gave them a sense of control over their mind and body, and helped them find the courage they needed in difficult situations.
TRAIN YOUR MIND AND YOUR BODY
While there are many things you can do to support the physiology of self-control, this week I’m going to ask you to consider the two strategies that have the biggest bang for their buck. Both are inexpensive and immediately effective, with benefits that only build with time. They also improve a wide set of willpower saboteurs, including depression, anxiety, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. That makes them good investments for anyone who wants more willpower and doesn’t mind the side effects of better health and happiness.
THE WILL POWER MIRACLE
Megan Oaten, a psychologist, and Ken Cheng, a biologist, had just concluded their first study of a new treatment for enhancing self-control. These two researchers at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, were stunned by the findings. While they had hoped for positive results, nobody could have predicted how far-reaching the treatment’s effects would be. The trial’s guinea pigs were six men and eighteen women, ranging in age from eighteen to fifty years old. After two months of the treatment, they showed improvements in attention and the ability to ignore distractions. In an age of thirty-second attention spans, that would have been reason enough to celebrate. But there was more. They had reduced their smoking, drinking, and caffeine intake—despite the fact that nobody had asked them to. They were eating less junk food and more healthy food. They were spending less time watching television and more time studying. They were saving money and spending less on impulse purchases. They felt more in control of their emotions. They even procrastinated less and were less likely to be late for appointments.
Good God, what is this miracle drug and where can I get a prescription? The intervention wasn’t a drug at all. The willpower miracle was physical exercise. The participants, none of whom exercised regularly before the intervention, were given free membership to a gym and encouraged to make good use of it. They exercised an average of just one time per week for the first month, but were up to three times per week by the end of the two-month study. The researchers did not ask them to make any other changes in their lives, and yet the exercise program seemed to spark newfound strength and self-control in all aspects of their lives.
Exercise turns out to be the closest thing to a wonder drug that self-control scientists have discovered. For starters, the willpower benefits of exercise are immediate. Fifteen minutes on a treadmill reduces cravings, as seen when researchers try to tempt dieters with chocolate and smokers with cigarettes. The long-term effects of exercise are even more impressive. It not only relieves ordinary, everyday stress, but it’s as powerful an antidepressant as Prozac. Working out also enhances the biology of self-control by increasing baseline heart rate variability and training the brain. When neuroscientists have peered inside the brains of new exercisers, they have seen increases in both gray matter—brain cells—and white matter, the insulation on brain cells that helps them communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. Physical exercise—like meditation—makes your brain bigger and faster, and the prefrontal cortex shows the largest training effect.
The first question my students ask when they hear this research is, “How much do I need to do?” My response is always, “How much are you willing to do?” There’s no point setting a goal that you’re going to abandon in a week, and there’s no scientific consensus about how much exercise you need to do. A 2010 analysis of ten different studies found that the biggest mood-boosting, stress-busting effects came from five-minute doses of exercise, not hour-long sessions. There’s no shame—and a lot of potential good—in committing to just a five-minute walk around the block.
The next question everyone asks is, “What kind of exercise is best?” To which I respond, “What kind will you actually do?” The body and brain don’t seem to discriminate, so whatever you are willing to do is the perfect place to start. Gardening, walking, dancing, yoga, team sports, swimming, playing with your kids or pets—even enthusiastic housecleaning and window-shopping qualify as exercise. If you are absolutely convinced that exercise is not for you, I encourage you to expand your definition to include anything you reasonably enjoy about which you can answer no to the following two questions: 1. Are you sitting, standing still, or lying down? 2. Are you eating junk food while you do it? When you have found an activity that meets this definition, congratulations! You have found your willpower workout.5 Anything above and beyond the typical sedentary lifestyle will improve your willpower reserve.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: THE FIVE-MINUTE GREEN WILLPOWER FILL-UP
If you want a quick willpower fill-up, your best bet may be to head outdoors. Just five minutes of what scientists call “green exercise” decreases stress, improves mood, enhances focus, and boosts self-control. Green exercise is any physical activity that gets you outdoors and in the presence of Mama Nature. The best news is that when it comes to green exercise, a quick fix really is enough. Shorter bursts have a more powerful effect on your mood than longer workouts. You also don’t have to break a sweat or push yourself to exhaustion. Lower-intensity exercise, like walking, has stronger immediate effects than high-intensity exercise. Here are some ideas for your own five-minute green exercise willpower fill-up: • Get out of the office and head for the closest greenery.
• Cue up a favorite song on your iPod and walk or jog around the block.
• Take your dog outside to play (and chase the toy yourself).
• Do a bit of work in your yard or garden.
• Step outside for some fresh air and do a few simple stretches.
• Challenge your kids to a race or game in the backyard.
A RELUCTANT EXERCISER CHANGES HIS MIND
Antonio, a fifty-four-year-old owner of two successful Italian restaurants, was in my class on doctor’s orders. He had high blood pressure and cholesterol, and his waist size crept up an inch every year. If he didn’t change his lifestyle, his doctor warned him, he was going to collapse of a heart attack over a plate of veal parmigiana.
Antonio had reluctantly gotten a treadmill for his home office, but it wasn’t seeing much use. Exercise seemed like a waste of time; it wasn’t fun and it wasn’t productive—not to mention the irritation of someone else telling him what he needed to do!
The idea that exercise could increase brain power and willpower intrigued Antonio, though. He was a competitive guy and did not want to slow down. He started to see exercise as a secret weapon, something that could keep him at the top of his game. It didn’t hurt that it would improve heart rate variability, which is a major predictor of mortality among people with cardiovascular disease.
He turned his treadmill into a willpower generator by taping a “Willpower” label over the machine’s calorie tracker (since he didn’t really give a damn how many calories he burned—this was a guy who would throw an entire stick of butter in a pan without thinking twice). As he walked and burned more calories, the “Willpower” number ticked up and he felt stronger. He started to use the treadmill each morning to fuel up with willpower for the day’s difficult meetings and long hours.
Antonio’s willpower machine did improve his health—what his doctor wanted—but Antonio also got something he wanted. He felt more energized and in control throughout the day. He had assumed that exercise would take away from his energy and time, but found it gave him back far more than he spent.
If you tell yourself that you are too tired or don’t have the time to exercise, start thinking of exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy and willpower.exercise as something that restores, not drains, your energy and
GAIN WILLPOWER IN YOUR SLEEP!
If you are surviving on less than six hours of sleep a night, there’s a good chance you don’t even remember what it’s like to have your full willpower. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation. It also makes it more difficult to control your emotions, focus your attention, or find the energy to tackle the big “I will” power challenges. (In my classes, there’s always one group that immediately recognizes the truth of this statement: new parents.) If you are chronically sleep deprived, you may find yourself feeling regret at the end of the day, wondering why you gave in again to temptation or put off doing what you needed to do. It’s easy to let this spiral into shame and guilt. It hardly ever occurs to us that we don’t need to become better people, but to become better rested.
Why does poor sleep sap willpower? For starters, sleep deprivation impairs how the body and brain use glucose, their main form of energy. When you’re tired, your cells have trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream. This leaves them underfueled, and you exhausted. With your body and brain desperate for energy, you’ll start to crave sweets or caffeine. But even if you try to refuel with sugar or coffee, your body and brain won’t get the energy they need because they won’t be able to use it efficiently. This is bad news for self-control, one of the most energy-expensive tasks your brain can spend its limited fuel on.
Your prefrontal cortex, that energy-hungry area of the brain, bears the brunt of this personal energy crisis. Sleep researchers even have a cute nickname for this state: “mild prefrontal dysfunction.” Shortchange your sleep, and you wake up with temporary Phineas Gage–like damage to your brain. 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.
When your prefrontal cortex is impaired, it loses control over other regions of the brain. Ordinarily, it can quiet the alarm system of the brain to help you manage stress and cravings. But a single night of sleep deprivation creates a disconnect between these two regions of your brain. Unchecked, the alarm system overreacts to ordinary, everyday stress. The body gets stuck in a physiological fight-or-flight state, with the accompanying high levels of stress hormones and decreased heart rate variability. The result: more stress and less self-control.
The good news is, all of this is reversible. When the sleep-deprived catch a better night’s sleep, their brain scans no longer show signs of prefrontal cortex impairment. In fact, they look just like the brains of the well-rested. Addiction researchers have even started to experiment with sleep interventions as a treatment for substance abuse. In one study, five minutes of breath-focus meditation a day helped recovering addicts fall asleep. This added one hour a night to their quality sleep time, which in turn significantly reduced the risk of drug use relapse. So for better willpower, go to sleep already.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: ZZZZZZZZZZ
If you’ve been running short on sleep, there are many ways to recharge your self-control. Even if you can’t get eight hours of uninterrupted sleep every night, small changes can make a big difference. Some studies show that a single good night’s sleep restores brain function to an optimal level. So if you’ve had a week of late to bed and early to rise, catching up on the weekend can help replenish your willpower. Other research suggests that getting enough sleep early in the week can build a reserve that counteracts sleep deprivation later in the week. And some studies suggest that it’s the number of consecutive hours you spend awake that matters most. In a crunch, taking a short nap can restore focus and self-control even if you didn’t get much sleep the night before. Try one of these strategies—catching up, stocking up, or napping—to undo or prevent the effects of sleep deprivation.
WHEN SLEEP IS THE WILLPOWER CHALLENGE
One of my students, Lisa, was trying to break the habit of staying up late. At twenty-nine, she was single and lived alone, which meant there was no one setting a sleep schedule for her. She woke up each morning exhausted and dragged herself through her job as an office administrator. She relied on caffeinated diet soda to get through the day, and to her embarrassment, she sometimes nodded off in meetings. By five o’clock, she was wired and tired, a combination that left her cranky, distracted, and craving drive-through fast food. The first week of class, she announced that going to sleep earlier would be her willpower challenge for the class.
The next week, she reported no success. Around dinnertime, she would tell herself, “I will definitely go to sleep earlier tonight,” but by eleven p.m., that resolve was nowhere to be found. I asked Lisa to describe the process of how she wasn’t going to bed early. She told me about the million and one things that each seemed more critically urgent the later the night got. Browsing Facebook, cleaning the fridge, tackling the stack of junk mail, even watching infomercials—none of this stuff was actually urgent, but late at night, it felt strangely compelling. Lisa was hooked on doing “one more thing” before she went to sleep. The later it got, and the more tired Lisa got, the less she was able to resist the immediate gratification that each task promised.
When we redefined getting more sleep as a won’t power challenge, things turned around. Forcing herself to go to sleep wasn’t the real problem, it was pulling herself away from the things keeping her up. Lisa set a rule of turning off her computer and TV and not starting any new projects after eleven p.m. This rule was exactly what she needed to feel how tired she really was and give herself permission to go to bed by midnight. With seven hours of sleep each night, Lisa found that infomercials and other late-night temptations lost their appeal. Within a couple of weeks, she had the energy to tackle the next willpower challenge: cutting back on diet soda and drive-through dinners.
If you know you could use more sleep but you find yourself staying up late anyway, consider what you are saying “yes” to instead of sleep. This same willpower rule applies to any task you are avoiding or putting off—when you can’t find the will, you might need to find the won’t.
THE COSTS OF TOO MUCH SELF-CONTROL
The willpower instinct is a wonderful thing: Thanks to the brain’s hard work and the cooperation of your body, your choices can be driven by long-term goals, not panic or the need for instant gratification. But self-control doesn’t come cheap. All of these mental tasks—focusing your attention, weighing competing goals, and quieting stress and cravings—require energy, real physical energy from your body, in the same way that your muscles require energy to fight or flee in an emergency.
Everyone knows that too much stress is bad for your health. When you are chronically stressed, your body continues to divert energy from long-term needs such as digestion, reproduction, healing injuries, and fighting off illnesses to respond to the constant stream of apparent emergencies. This is how chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, chronic back pain, infertility, or getting every cold and flu that come around. That you never actually have to fight or flee these ordinary stresses (good luck trying to outrun or mortally wound your credit card debt) is beside the point. So long as your brain keeps identifying an external threat, your mind and body will be thrown into a state of high alert and impulsive action.
Because self-control also demands high levels of energy, some scientists speculate that chronic self-control—like chronic stress—can increase your chances of getting sick by diverting resources from the immune system. You heard it here first: Too much willpower can actually be bad for your health. You may be thinking: What about all that stuff in the first chapter about how important willpower is for health? Now you’re telling me self-control is going to make me sick? Well, maybe. Just like some stress is necessary for a happy and productive life, some self-control is needed. But just like living under chronic stress is unhealthy, trying to control every aspect of your thoughts, emotions, and behavior is a toxic strategy. It is too big a burden for your biology.
Self-control, like the stress response, evolved as a nifty strategy for responding to specific challenges. But just as with stress, we run into trouble when self-control becomes chronic and unrelenting. We need time to recover from the exertion of self-control, and we sometimes need to spend our mental and physical resources elsewhere. To preserve both your health and happiness, you need to give up the pursuit of willpower perfection. Even as you strengthen your self-control, you cannot control everything you think, feel, say, and do. You will have to choose your willpower battles wisely.
WILLPOWER EXPERIMENT: RELAX TO RESTORE YOUR WILLPOWER RESERVE
One of the best ways to recover from stress and the daily self-control demands of your life is relaxation. Relaxing—even for just a few minutes—increases heart rate variability by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and quieting the sympathetic nervous system. It also shifts the body into a state of repair and healing, enhancing your immune function and lowering stress hormones. Studies show that taking time for relaxation every day can protect your health while also increasing your willpower reserve. For example, people who regularly practiced relaxation had a healthier physiological response to two stressful willpower challenges: a test of mental focus, and a test of pain endurance (keeping one foot immersed in a pan of 39°F water—readers, please do not try this at home). Athletes who relax through deep breathing and physical rest recover more quickly from a grueling training session, reducing stress hormones and oxidative damage to their bodies.
We’re not talking about zoning out with television or “relaxing” with a glass of wine and a huge meal. The kind of relaxation that boosts willpower is true physical and mental rest that triggers what Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson calls the physiological relaxation response. Your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure drops, and your muscles release held tension. Your brain takes a break from planning the future or analyzing the past.
To trigger this relaxation response, lie down on your back, and slightly elevate your legs with a pillow under the knees (or come into whatever is the most comfortable position for you to rest in). Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths, allowing your belly to rise and fall. If you feel any tension in your body, you can intentionally squeeze or contract that muscle, then let go of the effort. For example, if you notice tension in your hands and fingers, squeeze your hands into fists, then relax them into open hands. If you notice tension in your forehead or jaw, scrunch up your eyes and face, then stretch your mouth wide open before relaxing the face completely. Stay here for five to ten minutes, enjoying the fact that there is nothing to do but breathe. If you’re worried about falling asleep, set an alarm.
Make this a daily practice, especially when you’re dealing with high levels of stress or willpower demands. Relaxation will help your body recover from the physiological effects of chronic stress or heroic self-control.
ONE NATION UNDER STRESS
Many of us come to the topic of willpower with ideas about what it is: a personality trait, a virtue, something you either have or you don’t, maybe a kind of brute force you muster up in difficult situations. But science is painting a very different picture of willpower. It’s an evolved capacity and an instinct that everyone has—a careful calibration of what’s happening in your brain and body. But we’ve also seen that if you are stressed or depressed, your brain and body may not cooperate. Willpower can be disrupted by sleep deprivation, poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, and a host of other factors that sap your energy, or keep your brain and body stuck in a chronic stress response. To every doctor, diet guru, or nagging spouse convinced that willpower is just a matter of making up your mind, this research should be a reality check. Yes, your mind is important, but your body also needs to get on board.
Science also points us to a critical insight: Stress is the enemy of willpower. So often we believe that stress is the only way to get things done, and we even look for ways to increase stress—such as waiting until the last minute, or criticizing ourselves for being lazy or out of control—to motivate ourselves. Or we use stress to try to motivate others, turning up the heat at work or coming down hard at home. This may seem to work in the short term, but in the long term, nothing drains willpower faster than stress. The biology of stress and the biology of self-control are simply incompatible. Both the fight-or-flight and pause-and-plan responses are about energy management, but they redirect your energy and attention in very different ways. The fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively, and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision making. The pause-and-plan response sends that energy to the brain—and not just anywhere in the brain, but specifically to the self-control center, the prefrontal cortex. Stress encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind. Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.
In recent years, a number of high-profile pundits have claimed that Americans have lost their collective willpower. If this is true, it may have little to do with the loss of core American values, as the pundits have claimed, and more to do with the increased levels of stress and fear in today’s society. A 2010 national survey by the American Psychological Association found that 75 percent of people in the United States experience high levels of stress. It’s not surprising, given the events of the last decade, from terrorist attacks and flu epidemics to environmental disasters, natural disasters, unemployment, and near economic collapse. These national stresses take a toll on our physiology and self-control. Researchers at Yale University School of Medicine found that during the week after September 11, 2001, patients’ heart rate variability decreased significantly. We were a nation overwhelmed, and it’s not surprising that rates of drinking, smoking, and drug use increased for months following the attacks of 9/11. The same pattern emerged during the height of the economic crisis of 2008 and 2009. Americans reported indulging in unhealthy foods more often to cope with the stress, and smokers reported smoking more cigarettes and giving up attempts to quit.
We’re also an increasingly sleep-deprived nation. According to a 2008 study by the National Sleep Foundation, American adults now get two hours less sleep per night than the average in 1960. Our nation’s sleeping habits may be creating an epidemic of poor self-control and focus. Some experts believe that the decrease in average sleep time is also one of the reasons obesity rates have soared over the same time period. Obesity rates are much higher among those who sleep for less than six hours a night, in part because sleep deprivation interferes with how the brain and body use energy. Researchers have also found that too little sleep creates impulse control and attention problems that mimic attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It may be that children’s sleep habits—which typically mirror their parents’, despite their even greater need for sleep—are contributing to the dramatic rise in the diagnosis of this disorder.
If we are serious about tackling the biggest challenges that face us, we need to take more seriously the tasks of managing stress and taking better care of ourselves. Tired, stressed-out people start from a tremendous disadvantage, and we are a tired, stressed-out nation. Our bad habits—from overeating to undersleeping—don’t just reflect a lack of self-control. By draining our energy and creating more stress, they are stealing our self-control.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: STRESS AND SELF-CONTROL
This week, test the theory that stress—whether physical or psychological—is the enemy of self-control. How does being worried or overworked affect your choices? Does being hungry or tired drain your willpower? What about physical pain and illness? Or emotions like anger, loneliness, or sadness? Notice when stress strikes throughout the day or week. Then watch what happens to your self-control. Do you experience cravings? Lose your temper? Put off things you know you should do?
THE LAST WORD
When our willpower challenges overwhelm us, it’s tempting to assign the blame to who we are: weak, lazy, willpowerless wimps. But more often than not, our brains and bodies are simply in the wrong state for self-control. When we’re in a state of chronic stress, it’s our most impulsive selves who face our willpower challenges. To succeed at our willpower challenges, we need to find the state of mind and body that puts our energy toward self-control, not self-defense. That means giving ourselves what we need to recover from stress, and making sure we have the energy to be our best selves.
The Idea: Willpower is a biological instinct, like stress, that evolved to help us protect ourselves from ourselves.
Under the Microscope
• What is the threat? For your willpower challenge, identify the inner impulse that needs to be restrained.
• Stress and self-control. Notice when stress strikes throughout the day or week, and watch what happens to your self-control. Do you experience cravings? Lose your temper? Put off things you know you should do?
• Breathe your way to self-control. Slow down your breathing to four to six breaths per minute to shift into the physiological state of self-control.
• The five-minute green willpower fill-up. Get active outdoors—even just a walk around the block—to reduce stress, improve your mood, and boost motivation.
• Zzzzzzzzzz. Undo the effects of sleep deprivation with a nap or one good night’s sleep.
• Relax to restore your willpower reserve. Lie down, breathe deeply, and let the physiological relaxation response help you recover from the demands of self-control and daily stress.
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