The Science Of Willpower

Man kneeling doing cable flyes

If you feel like your life has been following the same script and nothing works out you might be lacking something self-control.

Self-control and willpower are two components of your psyche that are in constant dialogue.

Oftentimes, we blame ourselves for not doing the things that have to be done in order for us to achieve our goals.

Let’s talk about willpower.

The Biology Of Willpower

Willpower and its development is without a doubt a hot topic for many people, which is why you can probably find a lot of people talking about it online.

But to fundamentally change how your willpower functions, you have to understand how it works on a physiological level.

If we trace human history, we come to find that willpower & self-control are instincts that formed throughout our evolution.

Over time, the prefrontal cortex has developed – This is the section of the brain that is responsible for self-control.

This part of your brain uses up quite a lot of energy and when you’re tired, underfed, or under-recovered, it suffers the most.

Self-control can be more challenging to maintain if those conditions are present.

Nowadays, we are exposed to such conditions often, leading to more and more people finding less and less motivation and willpower to do the right things for themselves.

Stress vs. Willpower

If you know a thing or two about stress, you’d be aware that the body has the “stress response”.

This is a self-protection response that arose back when our ancestors were living in the wild, where predators were prevalent.

The stress response is also known as the “fight or flight” response and is characterized by an increased heart rate, alertness, lowered immune function & high cortisol and adrenaline levels. (1)

The same response gets triggered in animals, such as when a gazelle gets attacked by a cheetah.

Contrary to the fight or flight response, the instinct of willpower kicks off another response, called the “pause and plan” response. (2)

This is basically the moment of rationalization when you’re responding to an internal conflict.

With the stress response, you respond to a threat in the environment.

With willpower, you realize you are your own threat.

If you trigger the pause and plan response, you will be able to induce self-control and develop more sustainable, healthier habits, and overall, make the right choices in most situations.

It’s All In The Heart

Your heart rate variability (HRV) is one of the most important variables that can speak about your internal response and whether it’s a stress or self-regulation response.

Heart rate variability (HRV) is basically the variance of time between the separate beats of your heart.

When under stress, the heart rate goes up and the variations decrease, pushing the heart to work closer to its maximum capacity.

This in turn triggers the feelings of fear or anger that are relevant to the fight or flight stress response.

Oppositely, when you successfully trigger the pause and plan response, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to induce a relaxation signal.

This makes the heart rate come down while the HRV increases and this creates the feeling of calmness, present alertness, and focus.

Heart-Brain Coherence

Willpower or self-control is not just about one component of your brain, such as the prefrontal cortex.

The moments of self-regulation and willpower are the end product of the work of a countless number of intricately connected neurons and systems in the body.

But we can certainly look at two specific organs that govern the majority of physical and mental responses.

Those are namely the heart and the brain.

Studies find that the heart has its own “mini-brain”, which is basically a bunch of brain neuron-like cells. (3)

This means that the heart can do almost everything the brain does, independent of the brain.

And then again, these two organs are intimately connected through the neural network, constantly governing each other’s work.

Isn’t It All Autonomous, Though?

When we talk about biology, most of the processes in the body are automatic.

You don’t consciously digest, control your blood pressure, heart rate, etc… (4)

But there is an autonomous function that can make you capable of powerful self-regulation responses; controlled breathing.  (5)

Whenever you decide to, you can take conscious control over your breath.

Even at moments when willpower needs to come into play, you can use breathing to induce powerful self-regulation.

Breathing Willpower Practice

Remember, most of your responses and thoughts are a repeating pattern and you have the willpower to change that.

Here’s something you can do during moments when you need willpower/self-regulation:

  1. Breathe in deeply and slowly (4-6 seconds)
  2. Hold your breath and pause for 2 seconds
  3. Exhale slowly
  4. Repeat a couple of times

This sends a powerful relaxation signal to the brain and the heart.

Each breath takes you further and further from the stress response, thus giving opportunity for a brief moment of pause and plan, that has potential to improve your thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, and therefore, end results.

Conclusion

Willpower and self-control are instincts that have allowed us to survive, thrive, and evolve.

Much like the stress response, the willpower response doesn’t get triggered as it used to during the times of our ancestors.

Nevertheless, it remains a functional part of people’s character and is something that can be worked on.

It is just a matter of you taking conscious control over your own actions, thoughts, and feelings.

Remember, you are the master of your body and mind, you are capable of powerful, internal self-regulation.

References

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/understanding-the-stress-response
  1. https://scopeblog.stanford.edu/2011/12/29/a-conversation-about-the-science-of-willpower/
  2. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/heart-wisdom_b_2615857#:~:text=Yes%2C%20the%20human%20heart%2C%20in,the%20body%20feels%20and%20more.
  1. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-autonomic-nervous-system-2794823#:~:text=The%20autonomic%20nervous%20system%20regulates,flow%2C%20breathing%2C%20and%20digestion.
  2. https://www.heartmath.org/articles-of-the-heart/the-math-of-heartmath/heart-focused-breathing/#:~:text=Typically%2C%20HeartMath%20recommends%20that%20you,establish%20your%20own%20natural%20rhythm.