How You Lose Your Willpower, And How To Strengthen It Today!

The Challenge: When we’re stressed, we lose our willpower, give in to temptation, and do things we later regret.
What Science Says: Instead of reacting in “fight-or-flight” mode, we can deal with stress through “pause-and-plan.”
Take-Home Message: Through breathing, you can actually regain control and strengthen your willpower!

Suddenly, you stare directly into the eyes of a 500-pound lion.

Upon seeing such a beast, an alarm goes through your body: The so-called autonomous nervous system pumps the blood full of stress hormones, your pulse and breathing get faster, and energy is directed to your muscles. Within your brain, the more primitive parts responsible for gut reactions take over, and before your conscious mind even grasps what is happening, you are already running toward the nearest tree.

This is the fight-or-flight system in action.

It was designed to save your life, and given that all your ancestors who have ever lived survived long enough to reproduce, it was a great success!

In a modern office, the threats rarely require one to run to the nearest tree or to engage in physical battle (hopefully). The problem is that we still carry that primitive fight-or-flight reaction within ourselves: Stressful things like deadlines still trigger the same kind of physiological changes. To deal with the problems at the office, however, giving more control to the primitive parts of your brain and less control to the more conscious parts is rarely a recipe for success. In stressful situations, we are reduced to more impulsive, emotionally driven behavior, which easily leads to doing or saying something we later regret. What is needed in these situations is calm thinking, not emotional outbursts.

How fight-or-flight can kick in at the sight of a chocolate donut.

Let’s say that you are on a diet and sitting calmly on a park bench enjoying your salad when a colleague arrives and offers you a donut with double chocolate. This is a threat to your diet, and a stress reaction starts within your body. This means that the prefrontal parts of your brain – the ones that are largely responsible for willpower and conscious thinking – are suddenly less in control than they were a moment before. Because of this, you are less able to fight your impulses and more prone to forget your diet and eat the donut. Ironically, the very perception of a threat to your diet makes you less able to fight that threat.

How not to succumb to fight-or-flight.

The solution is to learn a different way of reacting to these kinds of threats. The donut is not an external threat; instead, it is a trigger for an internal battle between that self within you who is committed to the diet and that self who is eager to eat something sweet. And to win this internal battle, the best thing you can do is to calm down. The calmer you are, the more coolly you can look at the situation. And the more coolly you look at it, the more you gain control and are able to follow your more rational self and your long-term commitments. Instead of fight-or-flight, modern threats are better dealt with through pause-and-plan.

The next time you sense the fight-or-flight response, here’s what you do.

Before panicking, take ten seconds to breathe deeply in and out, in and out. This calms you down and gives the conscious part of your mind the time to gather itself. You are again in control of yourself and can better address the situation in a way that you – and not your gut instincts – deem appropriate.

Segerstrom, S. C., Hardy, J. K., Evans, D. R., & Winters, N. F. 2012. Pause and plan: Self-regulation and the heart. In R. A. Wright & G. H. E. Gendolla (Eds.), How motivation affects cardiovascular response: Mechanisms and applications: 181–198. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Frank Martela
Frank Martela, PhD, is enthusiastic about exploring the ultimate factors of human motivation. His main research topics include willpower, intrinsic motivation, and meaning in life. He experiments with his own willpower through barefoot running – last year he ran his first two barefoot marathons. As regards meaning in life, he finds it by making himself meaningful for other people as a researcher, a spouse and a father. Frank has wide experience in lecturing about motivation and willpower for both academic and general audiences. His latest book, Willpower: The Owner’s Manual, distills the scientific knowledge about willpower into twelve easy and practical tools.
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