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When Too Much Self-Control Backfires – and What to Do About It

It’s easy to think that if a little of something is good, then more of it must be better. But the reality is, too much of anything can have negative effects – including self-control.

As Kelly McGonigal writes in The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It: “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.” (p. 48)

Even more, too much self-control can actually lead to willpower failures.

This initially surprised me, but it made sense the more I thought about it.

What does self-control do?

It helps to consider what self-control actually does from a physiological standpoint.

When you know you should do something but don’t, or do something you know you shouldn’t do, you suffer an internal conflict. A conflict that your brain and body considers a threat.

Unlike an external threat, the danger here is coming from within. The usual threat response of flight-or-flight doesn’t help. In fact, it makes things worse by pushing you to do something impulsive.

What you need instead is to slow down. Pause. Consider your options. Then make an informed decision.

In those moments when you need self-control, you’ll experience “changes in the brain and body that help you resist temptation and override self-destructive urges. [Psychologist Suzanne] Segerstrom calls those changes the pause-and-plan response.” (p. 36)

This sounds great, but we all know it doesn’t always happen.

Why doesn’t it always work?

To understand why this doesn’t always work, consider what happens in those moments of internal conflict. You’re under stress. This elevates your heart rate, and it also reduces heart rate variability.

You might not think that minor variations in your heart rate would be a good thing. We usually like to think of our hearts as steady. But these small ups and downs are good. They help keep your body in balance.

And interestingly, this variation is closely tied to willpower and self-control.

When you use self-control, your overall heart rate goes down but increases variability. This helps you feel focused and calm.

Even more interesting is that: “Studies also show that people with higher heart rate variability are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations…. If you have high heart rate variability, you have more willpower available for whenever you need it.” (p. 39)

But what happens if something interferes with those normal variations? Something like stress?

You have less willpower available.

Any situation that increases your stress levels can interfere with willpower. That includes constantly monitoring yourself for internal threats and trying to stop yourself from making the wrong decision.

Boosting your self-control

Given that, you’re probably wondering what you can do to improve your willpower reserve.

One approach is to make sure you’re not overdoing the self-control. Don’t put so much constant pressure on yourself.

Otherwise, anything that reduces your stress will help, but two strategies have the biggest impact.

Exercise – and sleep.

Exercise does this in a number of ways:

  • Quickly reduces cravings

  • Increases heart rate variability

  • Makes your brain grow bigger and work faster

This doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. It can be gardening… house cleaning… playing with the pets… and much more.

Even better: “Shorter bursts have a more powerful effect on your mood than longer workouts.” (p. 44) I’ll take that!

As for sleep: “Being mildly but chronically sleep-deprived makes you more susceptible to stress, cravings, and temptation.” (p. 45)

This makes sense to me, especially when I think about how much easier it is to justify sugar and caffeine when I’m tired. I also don’t have much focus or energy for anything, let alone trying to maintain self-control.

The mindful eating connection

As soon as I read about the “pause and plan” approach for self-control, I thought, “That’s mindful eating!”

And that does cover a lot of it. Giving yourself time for that pause can help you evaluate not only your immediate desire but how you want to proceed with it.

Maybe you’ll still have the cookie, but you slow down enough to savor it.

Plus, practicing mindful eating can spill over into other areas of your life. If you’re less stressed about your food choices, you’ll have more willpower reserve to use self-control in other areas.

And I couldn’t help thinking about how diets force you into that constant stress and judgment about your eating patterns. It makes sense to me how that could drain your willpower, sabotage your self-control, and even make you sick.

How about you? Have you noticed any situations where your self-control has suffered? Or when you’ve been able to successfully pause and plan?

As for myself, I’m going to remember how important it is to have moderation in all things – including self-control.

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