What is willpower: The ability to do what really matters, even when it’s difficult. — Kelly McGonigel .

How often do you find yourself in a war between a part of you that wants to be healthy and productive and the other part of you that wants to devour the cheesecake while lounging on the couch watching Netflix?

In this war, sometimes the warrior inside you wins, and sometimes the cheesecake-loving monster.

Science has now discovered that winning this war is often determined by the state of your physiology. And the good news is that you can actually learn to deliberately shift your physiology into that state.

The best part?

You can train your body’s capacity to stay in this mighty state so that when temptation strikes, your default response would be that of self-control and discipline. 

So, let’s see how you can awaken your inner warrior.

But first, you need to understand what does strawberry cheesecake have in common with a saber-tooth tiger.

A Tale of Two Threats — Cheesecake and Saber-Tooth Tiger

Imagine you’re strolling in the jungles of Amazon. Then you hear the bushes behind you jiggling. Suddenly, holy shit! A tiger jumps out and charges at you. What do you think at that moment? That’s right, you don’t think, you just run. 

Fortunately, your ancestors had to deal with such threats and you inherit from them the mechanisms to for rapidly confronting them. 

It is called fight-or-flight.

Here’s what actually happens in your brain in the words Daniel Goleman — the best selling author of Emotional Intelligence:

A visual signal first goes from the retina to the thalamus, where it is translated into the language of the brain. Most of the message then goes to the visual cortex,
where it is analyzed and assessed for meaning and appropriate response; if that
response is emotional, a signal goes to the amygdala to activate the emotional
centers. But a smaller portion of the original signal goes straight from the
thalamus to the amygdala in a quicker transmission, allowing a faster (though less precise) response.
 

resist temptations
Fig 1. On the sight of Danger, your amygdala controls your behavior before you are even aware of it.

He then continues to add — and this is critical to understand:

Thus the amygdala can trigger an emotional response before the cortical centers have fully understood what is happening.

So basically, your amygdala — the brain’s alarm system — inhibits your deliberate and thinking brain (the pre-frontal cortex) which is responsible for rational thinking and impulse control.

This rapid and autonomous state of your physiology is called fight-or-flight response. It makes sure that your slow and thinking brain does not get in the way by overthinking an escape plan.

But, what does it have to do with cheesecake and resisting temptations?

Cheesecake— A New Kind of Threat 

Imagine now, you’re walking around the block and then BAM! Your gaze locks onto a delectable cheesecake on the bakery display case.
 
Fig 2. Strawberry Cheesecake- Photo Credit: thebusybaker

Before you can say “Oh, I’m on a diet”, you’re already pulling the handle, and the owner welcomes your tongue-hanging, mouth-drooling arrival.

What happens to your brain now? This is how Kelly McGonigel describes the situation in her best-selling book The Willpower Instinct:

At the sight of the cheesecake, your brain gives you a shot of dopamine which is embraced by the areas of your brain that control you attention, motivation, and action. Those dopamine messengers tell your brain that “You must have the cheesecake NOW, or you will suffer a fate worse than death.”

This is where we face a new threat. While you are being lured by the delicacy of cheesecake, part of you recalls that you have bigger goals, such as health, fitting into your jeans, etc. This part of you recognizes that cheesecake threatens your long-term goals. 

But, unlike the tiger situation where you just flee from it, the automatic fight-or-flight response is the last thing you want.

So, what should you do now? Has the evolution endowed you with weapons to combat such threats as well? Before you can say “Oh, I’m on a diet”, you’re already pulling the handle, and the owner welcomes your tongue-hanging, mouth-drooling arrival.

The Willpower Instinct: Pause-and-Plan

Suzanne Segerstom, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky, has found that, just like stress, self-control has a biological signature. 

Self-control cascades series of changes in the brain and body that help you resist vicious temptations. Segerstom calls those changes the pause-and-plan response. 

The pause-and-plan response has a crucial difference with fight-or-flight: It ignites with the perception of internal threat rather than external.

inner conflict
Fig 3. Inner Conflict

You are tempted to do one thing (smoke a cigarette, visit an inappropriate website at work, etc.), but you shouldn’t. Or you should do something important (finishing a project, writing your next blog post, etc) but you don’t feel like it.

This internal conflict rings the alarm; an alarm to protect you from your own self. 

In such situations, the most beneficial response is to slow down, not to speed up (as the fight-or-flight does). Pause-and-plan is an instinct to help you put the breaks on your destructive impulses.

Here’s the catch though.

Even though like the fight-or-flight, the pause-and-plan is innate to human nature, you probably know from experience that it doesn’t always feel as instinctive and compelling as the cheesecake. 

But there’s a fix!

HRV: The Body’s Mighty Willpower Reserve and How to Unleash it

The best and most accurate measure of pause-and-plan response is a weird thing called heart rate variability (HRV). 
 
Heart Rate Variability - Photo Credit: firstbeat
Heart Rate Variability - Photo Credit: firstbeat

The time between every two heartbeats slightly varies. 

Astonishingly enough, when you are in a fight-or-flight state, heart rate goes up but the HRV is reduced, i.e. the time between each heartbeat is more orderly and equal. 

But, when you exert self-control to resist a temptation, your heart rate goes down, but variability (HRV) goes up. 

Heart rate variability is such a good criterion for willpower that you can rely on it to predict who will resist temptation and who will give in. For instance, recovering alcoholics whose HRV goes up on the sight of alcohol are more likely to stay sober. 

People with higher HRV, studies show, are better at ignoring distractions, delaying gratification, and dealing with stressful situations. They are less likely to give up on difficult tasks even if they initially fail and receive critical feedback. 

The ugly fact is thatو more than others, some people are lucky to have higher heart rate variability and as a result, more willpower.

This is why in the words of Segerstom:

Many factors influence this willpower reserve, from what you eat (plant-based diet, unprocessed food helps, junk food doesn’t) to where you live (poor air quality decreases heart rate variability — yes, L.A.’s smog may be contributing to high percentage of movie stars in rehab). Chronic illness and pain also drains your body and brain’s willpower reserve.

So, If you have more HRV, you have more willpower. Now the million-dollar question? How can you increase your HRV? 

Breath Your Way to Increased HRV and Willpower

What follows is a simple breathing technique and is one of the few quick fixes you can find to actually boost your willpower in the heat of the moment.

In the face of temptation, slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That would be ten to fifteen seconds per breath.

Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute.

Do this for just 2–3 minutes and you will marvel at results.

Pro tip 1: Do not hold your breath when trying to slow down your breathing. Otherwise, it sparks stress.

Pro tip 2: It would be much easier to control the exhale. If you had trouble, focus on slowing down your exhale (imagine you’re venting off the air through a straw in your mouth).

Slowing down the breathing activates a brain region called prefrontal cortex — the seat of willpower — and increases the heart rate variability. Consequently, it shifts your body brain and body from a state of stress to self-control. 

Research shows that regular practice of this technique makes you more resilient to stress and strengthen your willpower. 

It is such a powerful that there are HRV training programs to help cops, stock traders, and customer service operators to increase their willpower and self-control. 

As an added bonus, it gives you a clear and calm mind in the face of stress and anxiety. 

Summary

  • Both the fight-or-flight and pause-and-plan are the body’s way of managing the energy but in totally different ways. 
  • When you have stress, you are in figh-or-flight state in which the body redirects energy to your muscle, leaving your prefrontal cortex hungry. As a result, you switch to an autopilot mode where you cannot think rationally.
  • Stress, then, is inherently incompatible with willpower and self-control.
  • The best measure of willpower is high heart rate variability (HRV). The higher the HRV, the higher your self-control and willpower in face of temptation.
  • A quick fix for boosting your HRV and willpower is to slow down your breathing to four to six breaths per minute. 

When you are tempted a lot, all you need is to slow down. 

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