September 5, 2017 – The Science Behind Willpower

Facilitator:  Chris Bovos, RN, CBN :

Chris spoke about Willpower, which most of us wish we had more of, to stop us from making choices that turn out to be bad for us.  Since temptations never stop, it is important to understand that we can improve or strengthen our willpower.

There has been a great deal of research regarding will power done by social workers and psychologists over the last 50 years.  It has been found that people will high self-control are more successful in many ways than those who do not.  Studies of college studies found the only predictor of grades in college was self-control.  Those with high degree of self-control did better in school and after school, and grew into adults with better health, better hygiene, lower rates of obesity, fewer criminal convictions, and had higher paying jobs. 

In one landmark study done in the 60’s, children were taken into a room by an adult and there was one marshmallow on the table.  They were told if they could wait 15 minutes until the adult got back, they could have 2 marshmallows.  Some of the children immediately ate the marshmallow, some tried to hold out the whole 15 minutes, but gave in and ate it before the 15 minutes were up, and another group were able to wait the whole 15 minutes and got 2.  The group that was able to wait were able to find ways to distract themselves in the room without focusing on the marshmallow.  That seems to be the biggest key. 

They also found that you only have a certain amount of willpower per day, and once you use it up, then your willpower is gone.  You use the same reservoir of willpower for all manner of tasks. The more stress you are under, the more decisions you have to make, the more you are having to resist urges, whether emotional or physical, the more you use up, which is why we often have less self-control later in the day.

Will power requires a source of energy, and in the brain that source is glucose.  The body uses 20% of the body’s glucose, which it converts to neurotransmitters to send signals.   If you have low blood sugar, you will have less self-control, so maintaining a steady level of glucose through eating protein is very important.  If you eat a candy bar, you may get a momentary boost of glucose, but then your blood sugar spikes, your body produces a lot of insulin to get it back down, and then you end up with a low sugar and a complete loss of self-control.  You will feel things more intensely, get mad more easily, cry more easily, be tempted more easily.  Eating 3 protein centered meals a day will help prevent that. 

The best way to preserve willpower to meet those unforeseen challenges in life is to arrange your life to reduce stress as much as possible.  If you are in a bad living situation, a job that makes you unhappy, etc., you need to make changes that can remove some of that stress which will preserve your will power and help you to manage time better and focus on the task at hand. 

If you find yourself feeling emotions more intensely, try have some protein to eat. Avoid anything full of sugar or fat, as they are addictive.  If you crave something, tell yourself you can have it later (the power of positive procrastination).  Find ways to distract yourself when you feel tempted.  Go for a walk, call a friend, read a book, etc. – something you like to do.  It will pass in less than 10 minutes.  Every time you make it through one of those, you add strength to your willpower, so look at those times as opportunities to strengthen that “muscle.” 

Reward yourself – not with food – when you reach a goal, such as resisting temptation for 3 days.  That’s part of self-teaching.  And don’t forget the basics:  healthy food, sleep, and don’t skip meals!