Common Questions About Willpower
What is willpower?
Willpower, also known as self-control, is the result of a “growth mindset” and desire to make change. When it comes to your health, your willpower will determine how quickly you can change habits and enact better behaviors suited to your personal health goals.
Self-control is a mastery and understanding of yourself as you grow while not allowing external sources or stress to inhibit your actions.
What can I do to avoid feeling stressed out all the time?
Willpower and self-control are inhibited or set aside altogether when we feel stressed out. From a biological perspective, it makes sense that our thinking and reasoning mind switches off when we face danger. But this has consequences in our modern world. Today, our fight-or-flight reaction is continuously triggered by stimuli that are no real threat to us at all. There are scary news reports, worrisome emails, and upsetting tweets. There are arguments and controversies posted every instant on Facebook.
If you actually stop and examine the situations that make you stressed, you’ll very often discover that they’re not worth being anxious about. In fact, we don’t need our fight-or-flight response in order to deal with most of the scary things we face in our modern world; we need our thinking brain. We need to be able to make measured decisions— including the decision not to get stressed out.
A few things you can do to not feel stressed out:
- Be aware of positive and negative stress and make room in your willpower to deal with both.
- Practice strengthening your growth mindset.
- Breathe and start a daily meditation practice.
- Rest the body so it can recover from daily stressors.
- Unplug when and where you can: a night off social media, a weekend without the news, stop answering emails after 5pm.
- Remain present in the moment when experiencing stress: no falling back to past habits or “fixing” a future that hasn’t happened yet.
Why do some people have better self-control than I do?
If you feel like you can’t “keep up” with those around you who are reaching their health goals, don’t despair. Your willpower and self-control are not natural character traits that you are born with. In fact, self-control as a character trait is a myth.
Self-control is an executive function skill that has been proven in studies that show certain activities build or destroy your willpower. Because you never developed new neural pathways to achieve a specific goal, you couldn’t succeed. For example, if you tried to lose weight by reducing calories and increasing exercise–like the simple health guides tell you–but keep bouncing back and forth on the scale, you may believe it’s because you’re a failure or because you don’t have self-control, like others around you.
But it’s not true. In actuality, your body is using its hormones to regulate and compensate for the calories you’re reducing by reducing energy…your body is acting without you to maintain your overweight or non-ideal weight!
Together, we can help you understand how to practice self-control and combine it with awareness of what your body uniquely needs to get back to better health.
What if I can’t control my cravings?
By their very nature, cravings are extremely hard to resist.
When the dopamine transmitter is activated, there’s a surge of adrenaline, and it often feels exciting. In that moment, when you feel the power of the craving, the anticipation of having it satisfied seems more pleasurable than almost anything else—and certainly more pleasurable than, for instance, meditating or exercising.
Because our stress response has been activated, our higher mind has turned off. That’s the part of the brain that could step out of the situation and decide, for instance, that drinking or binge eating or watching television might not be the best course of action. After all, your higher mind is the part of you that knows what
you truly desire for yourself.
You truly desire health—but in the moment of the craving, with your higher mind switched off, that larger desire seems secondary to the anticipated pleasure of giving in to the craving. So here’s a powerful, evidence-based approach to addressing the problem.
The next time you feel yourself beginning to crave a substance or activity that you know is unhealthy—whether it is junk food or alcohol or television or something else—wait ten minutes.
And in those ten minutes, select a different activity. Go for a walk or talk to a loved one or just relax quietly. Research suggests that if you engage in one of these healthy activities for ten minutes or more— instead of giving in to a craving— more often than not, the power of the craving will diminish.