Want Won't Will

June is here already. Have you struggled to keep your new year’s resolutions? You are not alone! Studies reveal not more than 20% can persist more than a month, there are two things to it

We’ve been talking about willpower, and in this post, we will delve into willpower a little deeper from the eyes of Stanford health psychologist and researcher Kelly McGonigal.

She mentions that willpower like stress is a mind-body response. While stress is a reaction to an external threat, willpower is a reaction to internal conflict. The conflict could be avoiding that cigarette or being unable to hit the gym.

Self-control requires a coordinated set of changes in the brain and body to help you resist temptation and overcome self-destructive urges. Unlike the adrenaline rush of fight-or-flight, it’s the pause-and-plan reaction, which puts the body into a calmer condition. It also sends more energy to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which helps you stick to your goals and overcome temptations.

She mentions that most scientists refer to this self-control described above as will-power. She studied emotional self-regulation for her doctoral thesis, but with interactions with students, she discovered that self-control is not enough for really hard things. It could be easy to follow a diet regime for a week but sticking to a healthy diet for a long is not easy. She trifurcates emotion regulation into

will power - the exercise component

won’t power - the avoidance component

want power - the motivational component

When it comes to resoultion or any goal for that matter. One must exercise the want - what is it that you want the most. Scaling up to your biggest want will unleash more will.

The next would be to avoid things that create unnecessary obstacles in the path. For instance if your job requires you to work till late, and you want to be an early riser, switching your job could be an option.

Finally comes the part of small consistent actions, where you exercise your daily will.

When it comes to exercising willpower, being born with a large prefrontal cortex does make a difference, but that isn’t the whole picture. The human mind is very plastic and can be influenced by the environment and life experiences.

The scientifically established practice of meditation and mindfulness which she has practiced over years has helped her increase self-awareness, reduce stress, and provide the brain with the rest it needs to practice self-control. The same can be applied to people struggling with various issues.

She mentions that Stress and willpower are inversely co-related. The first focuses on short-term actions and the latter is needed for long-term goals. If there is the stress it will be hard to exercise the will. The urge to act instinctively steals away the energy from wise decision-making.

One of the causes of stress is a lack of proper sleep. Getting less than six hours of sleep at the night induces chronic stress. The prefrontal cortex suffers and leads to cravings as the stress response. If the situation persists the individual overreacts to ordinary, everyday stress and temptations. Once enough sleep and rest are managed brain scans do not show any signs of prefrontal cortex impairment.

Nutrition has an important part in ensuring fuel for the brain cells. Consuming a more plant-based, and less-processed diet leads to higher energy levels in the brain and improves acts of procrastination.

Now that we have talked about sources of willpower, contrary to popular opinion, it is important to understand that willpower is not necessarily a limited resource. Will is a metaphorical muscle, and like every muscle, it tires out, but also like every other muscle it can be trained to endure more.

When it comes to training the will-muscle exercise of the body and that of the mind through meditation can enhance will-power reserve.

Regular cardiovascular exercise or yoga can make the body more resilient to stress which boosts willpower.

Meditation improves attention, focus, stress management, impulse control, and self-awareness. Seven to eight weeks of daily meditation have shown an increase in the grey matter of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain.

Now that we have a complete picture, let us talk a bit about the need for a will. Our brain has two different modes, the first is focused on

  • instant gratification
  • short-term survival
  • pain avoidance

The second is focused on

  • long-term rewards and bigger goals
  • values of life
  • reflecting on consequences of action

The first is the “impulsive self”, and the second “expansive self”. The impulsive self makes us do things that we later regret and prevents us from taking action that is difficult yet necessary.

The impulsive self is based on the mid-brain. This includes dealing with stress, cravings, and habit system.

The expansive self is located in the frontal cortex and manages attention, motivates positive action, reflects on the future, and regulates the activities of the mid-brain.

The mode in which one operates is dependent on the relative activation of either the mid-brain of the frontal brain. Our choices are shaped by the relative dominance of these two systems.

It is best to train the brain to exercise more of the frontal regions and less of the cravings and stress of the midbrain. Exercise, Sleep, and mindfulness disrupts the functional connectivity of the craving network in the brain.

It is important to understand that we all have two brain modes. Those deeply troubled with jealousy, depression, or anxiety can learn skills for improving their self-control.

You can read more in her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It

That’s all in this edition.

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