Most of us are under a constant stress.
There are so many things that take away from our peace of mind: health issues, financial troubles, responsibilities at work, relationship dramas, and so on.
We all know by now that stress is very detrimental to our health and can cause some serious problems.
However, did you know that stress also destroys your willpower, and therefore keeps you from achieving your goals?
It may sound bleak but don’t stress too much because there are some things that you can do to help reduce your stress levels and increase your willpower.
What is willpower?
In order to understand how willpower is affected by stress it’s important to clarify what willpower is.
In her book “Maximum Willpower”, Kelly McGonigal, a professor who teaches “The Science of Willpower” class in Stanford, talks about three different aspects of willpower:
• “I won’t” power – the ability to resist temptations (sweets, alcohol, computer games, etc.).
• “I will” power – the ability to do what needs to be done (homework, tax returns, sit ups, etc.)
• “I want” power – the awareness of one’s long term goals and desires (being healthy, losing weight, paying off student loans,etc.)
According to McGonigal, willpower is about harnessing these three power to stay out of trouble and achieve your goals.
Contrary to popular belief, willpower isn’t some abstract character trait, it’s actually a physical function of the brain. Prefrontal cortex, a part of your brain that is right behind your eyes and forehead, is responsible for your ability to resist temptations, do what needs to be done, and stay focused on your long term goals and desires. It’s very important to understand this physical nature of willpower, because most of our willpower struggles comes not from our character flaws, but from conditions that are as unfavorable to exerting willpower as a broken leg is unfavorable to running a marathon. Stress is one of such conditions. In this article you will learn some techniques that will help reduce your stress levels and increase your willpower.
Why stress destroys your willpower?
We are much more likely to do something that we will later regret when we are feeling bad. I’m sure that you have noticed that when you are feeling down you often look for solace in the things you consider to be your vices: alcohol, junk food, computer games, etc. It’s not easy to stay on track when you are feeling good, but when you are feeling bad, it’s extremely difficult. This phenomenon even has a name in psychology: the what-the-hell effect.
You might be wondering why we become so vulnerable to all kinds of temptations when we are stressed out. Well, the answer lies in the way the human brain works. Your brain is hard-wired to try to improve your mood when you are having a bad day because this increases your chances of survival. In order to do so the brain not only goes into a more impulsive state, but also turns up the volume of your cravings, which makes the usual temptations even more appealing. When you are under stress, your brain doesn’t give a damn about the big picture, it wants to make you feel better right now, and it will nudge you towards every opportunity to get a quick relief, no matter the consequences.
This is one of the reasons why so many people struggle with willpower. You might really want to lose weight, but after a long commute, rude customers, and a jerk boss, your brain will nudge you towards a familiar way to quickly feel better: comfort food. We are quick to beat ourselves up because we perceive our lack of willpower as a flaw in our character, but is this really the case? It’s no wonder we can’t muster enough willpower when under stress: our brains are working against us!
Stress relief strategy #1: Stop obsessing over things that are beyond your control
It’s important to accept the fact that we don’t have control over a lot of things in our lives. It doesn’t matter how much you regret that decision you have made in the past – there’s no way to change it now. It doesn’t matter how worried you are that your girlfriend might cheat on you – if she wants to cheat on you with a whole soccer team, she will find a way to do that. It doesn’t matter how afraid you are of car accidents – there’s no way of foreseeing whether you will get into one or not. A huge amount of stress in our lives comes from this habit of obsessing over things that we can’t do much about. Obviously, that doesn’t make much sense, since things that are beyond your control remain beyond your control whether you stress about them or not. It’s wise to train your mind to identify these things and let them go. That being said..
Stress relief strategy #2: Do everything you can about the things that are within your control
We often underestimate how much we can do to avoid stressful situations. You can avoid much of health-related stress by making healthy lifestyle choices. You can avoid much of money-related stress by setting up a solid emergency fund and opening a separate savings account for big future expenses (weddings, down-payment, kids, etc.). You can avoid much of relationship- related stress by carefully choosing who you surround yourself with. Life is predictable in a way that we know that sooner or later something will definitely go wrong, although we can’t be sure what exactly will happen (your can’t predict that your car will break down when you least expect it, but it’s pretty obvious that you will inevitably have to deal with some unexpected expenses sooner or later, so it’s wise to set up an emergency fund for those instances). You might be surprised how much more relaxed your life could be be if only you would make an effort to prepare for this predictable unpredictability of life.
Stress relief strategy #3: Use stress relief methods that actually work!
Most of us use ineffective ways to combat stress without even realizing it. According to the American Psychological Association, the stress-relief methods that most people turn to under pressure, such as smoking, drinking, eating, computer games, TV, etc. are among the least effective ways of dealing with stress. What works, then?
Well, the answer probably isn’t that surprising. According to the American Psychological Association some of the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends and family, going for a walk, engaging in a creative hobby, getting a massage, and praying or attending a religious service. It’s easier said than done, though. Why?
When you are under stress, your brain wants to make you feel better, but it has a tendency to mispredict what will make you happy. For example, when I’m stressed out, I don’t want to go exercise, I want to overdose on McDonald’s food while watching my favorite TV shows. Why does that happen despite the fact that I know that exercise is a much more effective stress-relief method than a junk food feast? My brain turns up the volume of cravings because it assumes that things I crave for will make me happy. That’s just how human brain works.
Prevention is better than cure: you can’t rewire your brain not to to make your cravings stronger when under stress, but you can make an effort to keep your stress level under control as much as possible. You can incorporate effective ways to reduce stress into your life: build a habit to exercise everyday (even if it’s only a 15 minutes walk), sign up for a class of something that you have always wanted to learn (yoga, painting, guitar, etc.), establish a tradition to have a dinner every Friday with your friends, and so on. This way stress-relieving activities will become a part of your normal routine which will help you to drastically reduce the amount of stress in your daily life.
Peace of mind is a necessity, not a luxury!
Willpower is one of the best predictors of how successful you will be in life. Studies show that those who have more self-control are better off in pretty much any way you can think of: they are healthier, earn more, go further in their careers, have more fulfilling relationships, and are overall happier. When you consider this, it becomes clear that stress has a very negative impact on your life because it makes it extremely hard to exert willpower, therefore it’s wise to make an effort to reduce it. Peace of mind is not a luxury, it’s a necessity, especially for those of us who have wild ambitions and big dreams. Relax.
If you want to incorporate exercise into your stress reduction plan make sure you check out this great article that will show you 3 Fun Workouts You Can Do At Home.
|Written on 9/13/2013 by Agota Bialobzeskyte. Agota Bialobzeskyte is the author of “How to have more willpower”. What could you achieve if you had the willpower to do what you have to do? Well, good news: you can have all the willpower you need! Here’s how to have more willpower.|
Photo Credit: Alan Cleaver