an Integral Enneagram of Consciousness; a model of consciousness, including
all aspects, for designing practical
paths of personal development and evolution.
Quick Links: so you
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and Self-Discipline, part 2
Biochemistry and What You Eat
Did you know that
willpower uses so much energy, that our blood glucose levels drop? We’ll
need further study to prove that it’s the brain using it, but the
connection opens some interesting doors.
Our brain monitors blood glucose levels, and most of our balanced
systems seem to “prefer” a stable, steady supply. According to the
Baumeister and John Tierney
Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, Penguin Press, 2012]
when we maintain a steady glucose level, our brain releases reserves,
rather than holding back, and we have more available, enabling us to
express more willpower. This is like how you might look at your bank
account. When you know you have a steady income stream, you budget and
spend more comfortably.
When you have spikes and drops, you’re less inclined to spend, not
knowing when the next influx is going to happen. Even when you have a
spike, the lack of steadiness overrides any sense of surplus, and your
brain still holds back on those reserves.
To help regulate a steady, stable glucose level that aids your
willpower, keeps you feeling full and guilt free, Nutritionist and
Certified Natural Chef Giovanna Garcia of
A Purified Life advises
a medium piece of
fruit (banana, apple, orange, pear) or 1-2 cups of berries with a
handful of seeds/nuts, 1/4 avocado, or drizzle of extra virgin olive
oil. Having a bit of healthy fat with carbohydrates helps stabilize
blood sugar rather than spike it, and triggers neurotransmitters telling
your brain you’re full longer.
Willpower fatigues with use like a muscle, and needs to be rested and
Exerting self-control, whether avoiding a bad habit or engaging in a new
good one, still consumes glucose, so we need to be very aware of the
cycle this starts. Any desire for sweets will stimulate a craving just
when our ability to resist is lowest.
Awareness is key. We need to use our resources intelligently, and
remember that a craving only begets more craving. There are no
neurotransmitters that respond to sugar with a sense of fullness or
Researchers have found that, on average, people spend four hours a day
resisting desires. When we’re not increasing our reserves through focus
meditation and glucose intake management, we’re using up far more time
than we may realize.
The amount of energy we expend stopping ourselves from doing things that
don’t serve us, can better be used on getting ourselves to do things we
really want to do.
This has the added benefit of getting a dopamine reward for our
successes, rather than the dopamine reward for our failures. (yes,
dopamine doesn’t discriminate, so we still get a short term reward for
the donut, until our conscious mind kicks back in with regret and self
Delayed Gratification is More Gratifying
people resist temptation, their heart rate actually slows, while their
heart rate variability and autonomic balance increases. Since we know
this is just one of hundreds of long term benefits, hopefully it makes
it an easier choice over short term immediate gratification. Studies
have shown that temptation lessens as we recognize the reward as
creating the desire in the first place, thus creating stress.
If we continue to bring to awareness the alleged reward creating stress,
over time and with practice, it becomes less of a shiny object of
attraction. We need to think of the alleged reward as a Trickster
who’s not our friend.
It may seem overly simple, but merely delaying the gratification builds
the willpower muscles of the brain. Give yourself 10 minutes of delay
time, and during that delay, get some physical distance from the
“temptation.” Time and distance work cumulatively, especially with
repeated behavior. The more we give ourselves this time and distance,
the more we build our strength as a habit, and don’t need to exert as
much effort. It literally becomes easier and easier to do what’s in our
own best interests, and not succumb to self-destructive behaviors.
Over the long-term, we end up getting enormous benefits from achieving
our goals, not sabotaging ourselves, feeling great, being healthy, and
being in condition and in a position to really go for the big wins, not
just the immediate gratification that inevitably leads to regret.
Stress Makes it Harder – Surprise!
Another complication is that stress shifts the brain toward the
immediate gratification reward system. Self judgment activates the
amygdala’s fight or flight. In fight or flight, there’s no future in
mind; just the immediate stress condition. Short term will win over
long term (real) desires. Once again, our only defense is
heightened awareness, and positive internal conversations, where we talk
ourselves into being rational and long-term focused.
Focus sends energy to your neocortex instead of fight or flight sending
it to your muscles.
activate the neocortex, reasoning, and your self-regulatory executive
function, do the following:
Observe your thoughts
Mindfully feel your feelings
Offer a gesture of care to yourself as if you were comforting a
small child, because in a way you are.
Studies have shown that secure attachment increases willpower. Secure
attachment basically means growing up with a stable container for
failures and discomfort, so we don’t seek self-soothing in other forms.
Dr. Mark Leary of Duke University has published research showing that
guilt and shame push us toward the very behavior we’re feeling guilty
about. The more you feel badly about x the more you’ll seek x.
Doing a study with donuts, participants coped with feeling badly about
eating a donut by eating another one. This was dubbed the “what the
hell effect.” As in “I’ve already blown it, so…”
It turns out, not surprisingly, that the more we aspire toward a
positive desired outcome, rather than merely stopping ourselves from
immediate gratification, the faster and easier willpower becomes
habitual second nature. Since we’re engaging more of our rational
self-regulatory brain to think about what we’re doing in the larger
scheme of things, we’re less driven by thoughtless chemical cravings.
This becomes a cycle of awareness and mindfulness that smooths the path
leading to our deeper, long-term desires, and gives us freedom.
Want to learn more about how to become the best you possible?
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- Ian J. Blei
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