• Willpower is a limited resource that can get depleted on the many tiny stressors and tensions of daily life. Lower your overall life stress and you free up more mental bandwidth to spend on what’s really important. Stress management should be a regular habit and not reserved for when you’re already struggling.
• Finally, think of glucose as the physical analogue of willpower. Sip something sweet to replenish glucose (which your brain runs on) and you improve your self-control—just make sure you’re not overindulging in unhealthy sweet things.
Keep the words flowing by buying me a coffee.
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If you monitor your moods for any length of time, you’ll probably notice that there is an inexorable link between your overall state of health and wellbeing, and your ability to be focused, calm, and self-disciplined. This seems blindingly obvious when said out loud, but so many of us push and push and try our hardest to rekindle self-discipline all whilst undermining ourselves with our lifestyle choices and health habits—and yes, stress is perhaps the most important lifestyle factor affecting not only your health but your ability to commit to good habits.
It’s simple: being stressed saps cognitive and psychological resources that you could better put to use achieving the goals you care about. If you have less to think and worry about, you have more headspace to devote to self-discipline.
Many potential stressors we face involve events or situations that require us to make changes in our ongoing lives and require time as we adjust to those changes. These changes can be positive, such as a new marriage, a planned pregnancy, a promotion, or a new house. Or they can be negative, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce. The thing is, if you are busy mitigating and managing these big changes, you will be less able to instigate any new ones, i.e., it will be far harder for you to find the energy and wherewithal for personal development of any kind.
Stress is not necessarily a bad thing—in the right amounts, it keeps us on our toes, challenges us, and keeps us honest. While no one can avoid all stress (and nobody needs to), you can work to consciously manage your stress levels in healthy, proactive ways.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
You’ve probably heard about the importance of stress management a thousand times in your life already. Maybe you know that you ought to take breaks or meditate or do a deep breathing exercise now and then. But the truth is, stress management is less a single activity or event and more a way of conducting every activity and event in your life. Pausing your breakneck, high-stress workday to meditate for ten minutes before hurtling right back into the fray will obviously do little to genuinely lower your stress.
One thing to bear in mind: stress management is not something you do as a “treat” or reward, it’s not being lazy, and it’s not optional. If stress is not managed, it will undermine your efforts to reach your goals and dampen your self-discipline, not to mention weaken your body’s immunity and make life a little more miserable all around. Stress management is also not something you do only once you’re already stressed—it’s not a Band-Aid to stick on after you’ve already depleted your inner resources. Instead, it’s something you do routinely, as part of the foundation of health and wellness that will support your grander efforts.
• You’ve been doing stress management all along if you have a regular exercise routine and a healthy diet that nourishes you. • Your physical body is stressed by things like caffeine, tobacco and alcohol, and this can reflect in mental and emotional stress, and impact your ability to recover and be resilient. • Protect another precious resource: your time. If demands from work or family stress you, your task may be to develop healthy boundaries and to assert your own needs. Block out time everyday where you rest and recuperate, and don’t allow anyone or anything to impinge on that. • Chronic stress may be a bigger warning flag that your entire life needs a change. Ask if your ongoing stress is a sign of you not living your real values, over-compromising, or staying in a relationship or job that’s not ultimately working for you.
The Emotional Eating Cycle (And How to Apply it to Other Situations)
It’s hard work, getting your body, heart and soul aligned and all pulling in the same direction: toward the things that you’re trying to create for yourself. Stress, temptation, bad attitudes, addictions, and negative self-talk can throw you off course just as surely as physical illness or practical constraints—if not more so.
Most people who crave more self-discipline have some sort of issue with food, either overeating or failing to stick to the healthy diet they know is best for them, and eating garbage instead. Even if “emotional eating” is not a problem for you, chances are you have a similar dynamic elsewhere in your life. As with all things, we can change these old patterns and habits by bringing our awareness to them, then taking conscious, committed action to changing them.
Food cravings are intense, sometimes irresistible urges to eat foods that are unhealthy, i.e., those high in sugar, fat or refined carbohydrates. The thing is, emotional eating is not a question of willpower. The foods you crave release feel-good chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and other relaxing endorphins in your brain. These chemicals bring relief, comfort, happiness, and calmness, but they also undermine our health and, in the longer term, create havoc in the body. Because these chemicals are part of the brain’s neurochemical reward system, the pleasure we feel when eating them make us more likely to seek them out again. This is the cycle—we eat those foods again, every time reinforcing the behavior.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
Today, these foods have been engineered in a lab to be as addictive as possible—your body literally cannot help but be drawn to them. However, you can beat cravings by tweaking your mindset and altering how both your body and your mind see these foods. Researchers from Brown University used MRI scans to examine the brain activity of obese or overweight study participants as they looked at pictures of drool-worthy foods like pizza, French fries, and ice cream. The researchers then tested a few different strategies, encouraging participants to focus on them for about a minute at a time. In a series of tests, they told them to:
• Get distracted by thinking about something other than food. • Accept and allow their thoughts as something they didn’t need to act on. • Focus on the negative long-term consequences of eating those goodies.
The results? All the above allowed the participants to reduce their cravings—something that could be seen visibly in the brain itself. To apply these findings to your own life, think of it this way: submitting to cravings is a habit, and you need to replace it with a better habit. Literally train yourself so that every time you see a bad snack food, you tell yourself, “That’s nice, but so what? Nobody ever died of a craving. It’ll pass,” and then immediately divert your attention elsewhere. Perhaps you can look at that tasty morsel and see it for what it is: a sense of disappointment in yourself, a sugar headache, and the feeling of your trousers being too tight to close the next morning. Is that what you want to choose?
One final secret to beating cravings for good is to understand that emotional eating is often an attempt at self-soothing, and an externalized way to emotionally regulate. If you find yourself reaching for junk food, pause and take note. What emotional need are you trying to satisfy? Then think of a healthier, more sustainable choice. If you’re stressed or sad, is a sugary treat really going to make you feel better? What are you really hungry for?
Sip Some Lemonade!
Nope, this tip is not a metaphor—you can boost your self-discipline by literally drinking a little bit of lemonade. Research detailed in the APA’s Monitor on Psychology report finds a direct link between brain glucose levels and self-control. Basically, when your glucose levels are high, you perform better on tests of self-control. This makes sense—glucose is your brain’s fuel. And your self-control originates in your prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, strategizing, and planning. This means you can think of glucose as a chemical analogue for willpower.
The idea is to maintain your brain glucose levels in the ideal range so that you are always perfectly primed to make the best decisions, and act with self-restraint and conscious choice. When your brain’s glucose is depleted (or too high, for that matter!) your willpower is compromised. The solution? Keep your glucose levels just right by sipping lemonade, especially during stressful or difficult times.
This may fly in the face of many assumptions around self-control. If you have a vision of self-discipline that looks like fasting and deprivation, rest assured that the science suggests otherwise. That simple glass of lemonade (or other sweet drink) can give you physical strength, which converts to better mental and psychological coping. Constant self-control depletes glucose levels, but they can be restored by that delicious glass of lemonade.
How to Use This in Your Life Immediately
Of course, this isn’t an excuse to go guzzling soda or indulging in mountains of sweet treats in the name of caring for your brain. This will only have the opposite effect: dramatic peaks and dips in your blood sugar will result in headaches, energy crashes, and cranky moods. So, sadly, eating a dozen donuts won’t give you God-like levels of willpower. The trick is not to maintain high blood sugar, but to keep it steadily in the optimal zone.
So, avoid fasting and make sure that you’re eating foods with a low glycemic index and plenty of fiber, so your blood sugar levels are stable. Go for a greater number of smaller meals throughout the day instead of a few enormous ones, and avoid refined carbohydrates that will flood your body with sugar and lead to insulin spikes and drops. Make sure your meals are balanced and contain fats, good carbohydrates, and protein.
You don’t need to have a full meal to replenish your glucose levels, however. Sipping lemonade provides an immediate source of glucose for your brain—take a sip or two and carry on. If you like, try sweetened tea or a small snack of fruit. Can candy and chocolate have the same effect? Yes, but these treats will also bring loads of additional calories and have a more chaotic or extreme effect on your blood sugar, not to mention you’ll be falling into the same emotional eating trap outlined above.
If you find yourself dipping mood- and energy-wise during the day, just pause and become aware. Forego reaching for candy or junk food and instead breathe deeply, take a break, and get your mind right. Have a little sip of lemonade and give your brain a helping hand.
Show notes and/or episode transcripts are available at https://bit.ly/self-growth-home
Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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