How Body Responses Sabotage Your Willpower

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Willpower Instinct" by Kelly McGonigal. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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How do your natural body responses affect willpower? How can you turn your fight-or-flight response into a pause-and-plan response?

Body responses such as the fight-or-flight response were great in the Stone Age, but not so great for our self-control. These impulses that were designed to save your life tend to kick in at the worst times—like when you’re on a diet and your body says that you need that fresh-baked cookie.

Luckily, there are ways to fight these natural body responses and take the control back.

Body Responses and Willpower

The brain has a lot of control over willpower, but it doesn’t do all the heavy lifting. Your body also “feels” when your willpower is being challenged. The urge that pulls you toward a cigarette, a pizza parlor, a cocktail bar, or an Internet shopping deal is both physiological and psychological. 

But there’s good news: In the moment of temptation, you can find the power to resist by adjusting your physiology. To do that, you need to turn off your brain’s fight-or-flight response, and turn on its pause-and-plan response. 

Fight-or-Flight Response 

Thanks to our evolution, our bodies respond to external threats with a fight-or-flight response. Back in our cave-dwelling days, if we spotted a giant human-eating predator, we had to act fast. The amygdala—the part of our brain that responds to alarms—would send emergency signals to the rest of the brain and all parts of the body. The adrenal glands would release stress hormones. The liver would flood energy into the bloodstream. The heart and lungs would start pumping faster to supply the body with extra oxygen. And so on. 

Meanwhile, the rest of the brain—everything except the amygdala—would basically shut down so the body could do its important life-saving work without interference. All higher functions were dismantled. All energy was diverted to fast, impulsive action. 

The fight-or-flight response allows your brain and body to act instinctively in crucial life-or-death moments. It’s brilliant engineering, but the problem is that we’re not living in the Stone Age any more, so most of us don’t often encounter life-or-death situations. But we still have a brain that’s always looking for exciting stimuli and always ready to jump into action.

External Versus Internal Threats 

The kind of “emergency” our brain is likely to encounter in today’s world looks something like this: You walk by a French bakery window and smell freshly baked Napoleons. Your brain responds to that stimulus by setting off an alarm. It sends dopamine neurotransmitters to alert other parts of your brain that something exciting is happening. Reasoning and analysis functions shut down because your brain says you must act immediately. Your body responds to the drama occurring in your brain: You feel a shot of energy run through you. Your blood sugar drops in anticipation of the sugary reward to come. Your heart rate increases. 

Our fight-or-flight response was designed to prepare us for external threats, and although this French pastry may be a threat to your diet, it’s certainly not a threat to your life. But your brain has gone into overdrive and is sending multiple messages to your body that you must act—purchase and eat these delicious treats!—right now. 

We often view temptation as something that exists outside of us. We talk about sinful desserts, enticing cocktails, or seductive click-bait ads, but the real temptation lies within our own brains—our desires, impulses, and dopamine transmitters. 

Pause-and-Plan Response 

The opposite of the fight-or-flight mode is the “pause-and-plan” response, named by Suzanne Segerstrom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky. While the fight-or-flight response takes on external threats, the pause-and-plan response handles internal threats. 

As discussed earlier, when fight-or-flight is activated, the brain and body prepare for immediate action. Higher-order functions shut down so impulse can reign. But when pause-and-plan is activated, the opposite occurs. The brain slows down for deliberate, careful analysis. It engages higher-order thinking to weigh and balance your options. 

The pause-and-plan response is essentially your way of protecting you from yourself. It’s a sophisticated monitoring system that checks for warning signs and then acts accordingly. For example, if pause-and-plan senses you’re getting angry and might start yelling at your boss, it alerts the prefrontal cortex to get busy restraining your anger. Or at lunchtime, instead of grabbing whatever food is within arm’s length, pause-and-plan lets you carefully consider your options: Should I have a double cheeseburger or a kale smoothie? 

Obviously when your brain slows down your decision-making, it’s much easier to control your impulses. 

How Pause-and-Plan Affects the Body 

While the fight-or-flight response starts in the reptilian amygdala—the oldest part of the brain—the pause-and-plan response comes from parts of the brain that evolved much later. Pause-and-plan connects the prefrontal cortex, where self-control is located, to other regions that handle body sensations, thoughts, and emotions. 

The fight-or-flight response floods your body with energy, whereas the pause-and-plan response floods your brain—specifically the prefrontal cortex, the self-control center—with energy. It slows down your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. It tells your muscles to relax, not tense up. 

Manage Your Stress, Improve Your Willpower   

The research: A 2010 study by the American Psychological Association found that 75 percent of Americans say they experience high levels of stress. Numerous studies have shown that significant national events, like the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 or the 2008 mortgage crisis, have a direct negative impact on heart rate variability. They’re also catalysts for increases in alcohol and drug use and other addictions. 

In short, when we get stressed, our efforts at self-improvement fly out the window. Fortunately, even in the most stressful times we have a few physiological “willpower hacks” to fall back on. 

Willpower Hack: Slow Your Breathing 

If you need to boost your willpower immediately, slow down your breathing. This activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, shifting your mindset from stress to self-control. Your goal is to breathe only four to six times per minute, which takes some practice (most of us typically breathe about 12 times per minute). 

To do it, don’t hold your breath—that increases stress—but rather slow down your exhalation. Focus on exhaling fully and deeply. Any decrease in your normal number of breaths per minute will increase your heart rate variability (and increase your willpower reserve). 

It takes only one or two minutes of slower breathing to decrease stress and boost willpower. If you want help learning how to do this, download an app like Breath Pacer or Breathe Easy. 

Willpower Hack: Get More Exercise  

Exercise is another quick-fix for failing willpower. Exercise has an immediate positive effect on willpower as well as long-term impacts. Even small amounts of exercise (like five minutes of walking) increase willpower and reduce cravings. Long-term, habitual exercise increases both gray matter and white matter in the brain—making your brain bigger and more efficient—and enhances heart rate variability. 

The research: A 2010 study showed that five-minute exercise sessions were actually more effective at stress reduction and mood-boosting than hour-long sessions.

For many non-exercisers, the key is to understand that exercise recharges your energy and willpower. Unlike many other activities, it does not drain it. What type of exercise you do doesn’t seem to matter. Any kind of movement is good—swimming, yoga, dancing, hiking, gardening, or even just playing with your dog. As long as you aren’t being sedentary, you’re building up your willpower reserve. Outdoor exercise (a.k.a. “green exercise”) has particularly good benefits for mood-boosting and increasing self-control.  

Willpower Hack: Sleep More   

Feeling fatigued depletes your willpower and makes it difficult to focus your attention, control your emotions, and ignore cravings. Being sleep deprived is roughly equivalent to being mildly intoxicated—your prefrontal cortex is impaired, and you can’t make good choices. Many Americans are chronically sleep deprived, which leads to willpower failure, which then cascades into depression, shame, or guilt. 

The research: According to a study by the National Sleep Foundation, in 2008 Americans got an average two hours less sleep each night than they did in 1960. Some scientists correlate lack of sleep with a propensity for obesity—people who sleep fewer than six hours per night tend to have a higher obesity rate. (Again, lack of sleep interferes with how the brain and body use energy.) 

A few studies suggest that what matters the most is the number of hours you are awake. In other words, if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, break up your day with a nap in the middle, and your brain will function better. 

Willpower Hack: Lie Down and Relax 

One way to recharge your willpower batteries is to relax. Kicking back for even a few minutes increases heart rate variability and shifts the body into fix-it mode. Stress hormones decrease and the immune system works better. (Athletes who rest and relax after intense workouts recover more quickly, and it’s because they’re reducing stress hormones.) 

What does it mean to relax? It’s not mellowing out with a glass of cabernet. Instead, you want to slow down your breathing, release tension from your muscles, and “turn off” your brain. Try this simple relaxation exercise: 

  • Lie with your back on the floor and put a pillow under your knees so your legs are slightly raised. 
  • Close your eyes and breathe deeply. 
  • Relax any tension you feel in your body by squeezing and releasing any tight muscles. (For instance, clench your hand in a fist, then let it fall limp. Scrunch up your face, then let it relax completely.) 
  • Stay in this position for five to 10 minutes. If you’re afraid you’ll fall asleep, set an alarm so you don’t need to worry about sleeping too long. 

How Much Self-Control Is Too Much?  

Working toward stronger willpower is good, but it’s possible to overdo it. Your goal should not be to achieve 100 percent willpower 100 percent of the time. When your brain exercises willpower, it focuses your attention, diminishes stress, and pushes away cravings, but that’s a lot of work. People who push themselves to have too much self-control can actually make themselves sick. 

Living under the auspices of unrelenting self-control is like living under chronic stress—it’s too much for the brain and body to handle. Sometimes it’s important to spend your brain energy elsewhere. In other words, be selective about when to utilize willpower.  

How Body Responses Sabotage Your Willpower

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Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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