The Science of Warrior-Like Willpower
Feel like your life has been following the same script to no avail? You're not alone. And your "self-control" may have something to do with it...
Self-control and willpower are two components of your psyche that are in constant dialogue.
As humans, we often find ourselves doing things that are counter-productive to achieving our goals.
For instance, that too-good-to-pass up burger you ate last night contrary to your weight loss goal…
Or maybe you bought a gym membership, but only went in once for a half-assed workout.
Sound familiar? If your answer is “yes,” this article is for you.
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 probably see a lot of people talking about it online).
But in order to fundamentally change how your willpower functions, you have to understand how it works on a physiological level.
Throughout human history, we see that willpower and self-control are instincts that formed during evolution.
For example, when humans were more primal, they had to somehow know to stay away from other humans’ belongings, or risk getting hit over the head.
Over time, based on the evolving circumstances, the prefrontal cortex (AKA the section of the brain that is responsible for self-control) developed.
The thing is, 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.
When that happens, you can find yourself off-your-leash with respect to your self-control.
And the problem is that nowadays, we are exposed to such conditions more frequently, 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’re aware that our bodies have a so-called “stress response.”
This is a self-protection response that developed back when our ancestors were living in the wild, and predators were behind every tree.
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, like when a gazelle is being hunted by a cheetah, for instance.
Contrary to the fight or flight response, the instinct of willpower calibrates a different response called the “pause and plan” response. (2)
This is basically the moment of rationalization (when you’re responding to an internal conflict).
So, you see, with the stress response, you respond to a threat in the environment…
But with willpower, you realize you are being your own threat.
Learning how to trigger the pause and plan response will be more beneficial as it helps you induce self-control, develop sustainable habits, and overall make the healthier and better choices for yourself whatever the circumstances.
It’s All In The Heart
Your heart rate variability (HRV) is one of the most important variables that can illustrate 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.
Conversely, 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 after HRV increases and this creates feelings of calmness, present alertness, and focus.
So you see, willpower / self-control (or whatever you prefer to call it), 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 a countless number of intricately connected neurons and systems do in our bodies.
That being said, two specific organs seem to govern the majority of physical and mental responses.
Those are: 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!
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.
After all, you don’t consciously digest, control your blood pressure, heart rate, etc… (4)
BUT… There is ONE autonomous function that can make you capable of powerful self-regulation responses and that is… breathing! (5)
(Now that you’ve read the word ‘breathing’ above, you’re probably breathing consciously, but don’t worry, you’ll switch back to autopilot in a second.)
Whenever you decide to, you can take conscious control over your breath.
Even at moments when you can’t quite muster the willpower you need, 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 when needed.
Here are some powerful things you can do during those times you need willpower/self-regulation:
- Breathe in deeply and slowly (4-6 seconds)
- Hold your breath and just pause the world for 2 seconds
- Exhale slowly
- Repeat a couple of times
You may be thinking “what the Hell will breathing do?” And the answer is it sends a powerful relaxation signal to the brain and the heart.
Each breath takes you further and further from the stress response, thus opening the doors for that coveted moment of pause and plan that will improve your thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, and therefore, end results.
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 much as it used to during the times of our ancestors.
Nevertheless, it remains a core part of a person’s character and luckily, it is something that can be worked on.
It boils down to 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.
Did you find this article useful?
Get a leg up on your goals. Sign up for our mailing list to get more science-backed articles sent straight to your inbox every month!