A short while ago, I was out to dinner with a few friends and I was introduced to a new person sitting at the table as "This is Eva. She is very strict about her diet." I was somewhat taken back and found myself feeling the need to explain that I wasn't strict and that I actually had total freedom to choose what I wanted to eat and I happened to want to eat healthy foods. The comment also made me curious.
Saying that I was "strict" was somehow implying that I was denying myself of something, when I don't actually feel that I am deny myself anything. In contrast, I actually feel that I am cherishing myself with the choices I make.
When I'm with my CrossFit friends, we all pretty much eat the same way and we enjoy working out and talking about it too. I never feel like I am denying myself or being "strict" in any way. I am only perceived to be "strict" around people who do not share my life style. Is it because I am not giving in to unhealthy impulses and immediate gratification? Self-disciplined I am, but strict and denying, I am not.
According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of self-discipline is in fact "the correction or regulation of oneself for the sake of improvement." Being "strict," restrictive or denying is not in the equation. Having willpower because you choose to love yourself and improve yourself, is.
And it may just be that the reason people have such problems with willpower and self-discipline is because they think it involves denial, rather than love and getting control over stress and the neural mechanisms that drive behavior.
Let me explain.
The human body is a living, breathing system. It is constantly in a state of flux as it responds to changes in the internal and external environment. When your body is out of balance or facing a challenge, when it perceives that you aren't enough or do not have enough resources to maintain your state of balance, it's called "stress."
The physiological response to stress that follows, or the stress response, is virtually automatic as it triggers a whole host of physiological changes and is driven by such stress hormones as cortisol and adrenalin. These changes then stimulate subsequent negative emotions and thoughts, and they drive physical actions and behaviors that are intended to bring resolution or relief for the given stress.
You feel hungry? You are driven to find food and eat. Cold? You go get a sweater. Leg is falling asleep while you are sitting on the floor? You are motivated to stand up. Nervous about not being able to pay your bills? You eat.
Why would you eat when you just need to pay your bills? Let's see. You don't have enough money and you are worried. Food makes the bad feeling go away, at least for 15 minutes.
The lack of an immediate solution and the subsequent worry lead to an over-active stress response system. An over-active stress system causes the heart rate to go up, muscles to tense, metabolism to slow down, stress hormones to increase, and negative emotions to take over so that the stress load becomes too much to bare, propelling you to want relief RIGHT NOW. And those chocolate-covered donuts do just that.
Through the course of your life time you have incurred many stressors that did not have immediate solutions and you discovered behaviors and habits that made the "bad feeling" go away -- like eating fried foods, drinking alcohol, staying up late playing on your computer, or smoking cigarettes for instance. These behaviors didn't solve your problems, but they sure continued to help you momentarily feel better because they helped quiet your stress response. And anything that quiets the stress response helps you cope. Over time, the behaviors became habits, habits that now kick in especially when you feel overwhelmed and stressed.
But even though they help you cope, these habits are also destructive in themselves, wreaking havoc on your stress system for one reason or another. Feeling guilty, for example, doesn't help. And now as an adult, when you are trying to lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, or develop a new skill, you find yourself failing because you lack self-discipline or the willpower to let go of your "bad" habits.
Newsflash! You are not going to get anywhere by denying yourself of habits that have given you relief in the past until you find ways to take care of the underlying anxiety or "bad feelings" to begin with, and replace the old habits with new ones. You have to find new ways to quiet the stress response if you want to get control over your impulses.
When the stress response is over-active, which is what occurs when you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or simply not good enough, you have less access to your executive functioning of your brain and therefore, less power over your impulses. Studies show that high stress is associated with low dopamine release in the brain and that individuals with a low dopamine response have a higher likelihood to have problems with impulsivity. This means that when you are feeling badly, your brain's neural mechanisms kick in to drive you to seek pleasure or reward so that you can feel better.
In contrast, when the stress response is quieted, which is what happens in meditation or when you feel loved, cortisol and adrenalin levels fall, and you have higher access to cognitive and executive functioning. Your executive functioning includes your ability to regulate emotions, problem solve, make decisions, plan, persist despite adversity and resist temptation.
So contrary to popular belief, self-discipline does not come along by denying yourself of something or being "strict" with yourself. This just makes your brain feel like you are being forced into "not enough" mode. It will make you feel worse about yourself and will likely trigger you to seek reward even more, which is one reason why dieting (versus improving your lifestyle choices) doesn't work.
Self-discipline is really about loving yourself and developing new habits, which not only help you reach your goals, but also help you truly improve yourself. In other words, it is a positive effort, not one of denial or negativity.
This is how you get there:
1. Set clear goals so when it comes down to it, you can think first, act later.
When you have knowledge that a greater reward is at stake, you are going to have an easier time letting go of instant gratification. Set clear goals and prioritize your list according to how you want to feel in the future. For example:
Step 1: Set the goal = improved performance at work or in the gym.
Step 2: List the things that help you improve performance: avoiding sugar, getting more sleep, taking active rest days, keep a diary, etc.
Step 3: Prioritize which things on the list are the most important for you and possible within the context of your schedule and busy life. When you follow this process, you will think twice before acting on an impulse, keeping your focus on your long term goal.
2. Motivate to win and remember that life doesn't happen to you, it happens for you.
Anxiety stems from the belief that you are not in control of your life circumstances, that you are somehow not enough or do not have enough to handle whatever challenge you are facing, and therefore a victim of life's circumstances. Changing your mindset to being a victor of your life sets the stage for you to regain your power. In this state, you are more likely to also stay positive in the face of challenges, experiencing less fear as the stress response is more controlled. More importantly, you are more likely to access your inner fire of motivation -- that fire that drives you to win and achieve. Aim to win!
3. Know your triggers and control the stress response:
Certain situations, people or even foods will cause your stress response to be triggered. Your job is to pay attention. Who and what causes you to feel impulsive? It could be sleep deprivation, or it could be tendency to feel overly criticized by your boss. Some triggers you can avoid or remedy, like getting more sleep. Science suggests, in fact, that self-discipline worsens the longer you go without sleep. Other triggers are not so easy to get rid of and you will have to prepare yourself for them, like doing a meditation to calm your nerves and your stress response prior to going to work, or taking a nap while your children are at school.
4. When in doubt, choose love:
Oxytocin, the love hormone, reduces activation of the neural circuitry involved in anxiety and stimulates the reward circuits in the brain. You can tap into the physiology of love, or the Love Response, in a variety of ways including spending time with your friends, getting a massage, being outdoors in nature, meditating, and most importantly, by acting kindly towards yourself. This means no "shoulding" on yourself, putting yourself down for not being "good" or for being "bad," or using the word "cheat." Negative self-thinking can be just as harmful on your stress response as your critical boss.
5. Ignore sabotagers and naysayers:
On that note, you want to avoid being influenced by other people around you who project their insecurities or judgments upon you. Stay focused on your long term goals -- goals that you set because you love yourself and want to feel healthy and happy in the long run, not just right now. Ignore the sabotagers, smile and send them some love.
6. Get some accountability buddies:
My ability to uphold a healthier lifestyle became easier when I joined CrossFit and found myself amongst other people who were doing the same thing. Either enlist other friends or family members to join you or ask for their support to remind you of your long-term goals. The key here is that no one is allowed to nag you, reprimand you, or cause you to feel guilt or shame. Instead, they are to remind you to love yourself, to ask yourself why you might have been triggered when you slip up, and help you analyze your patterns so that you can get back on track.
Follow Eva M. Selhub, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrEvaSelhub