When Stress Depletes Self-Control

I received a request for a blog post about how to dismiss binge urges when you feel like your self-control resources in your higher brain are being drained due to stressful responsibilities—ones that seem to require heroic self-control (ie: caring for an aging parent, nursing a sick spouse, being with young children all day, a highly demanding career, dealing with difficult customers/patients/managers). At the end of the day, or whenever you tend to binge, you may not feel like you have the energy left to say no when those lower brain pathways automatically drive you toward binge eating.

You may go so quickly from urge to action that you begin to wonder if your prefrontal cortex (the part of the higher brain that gives you the capacity to resist urges from the lower brain) is even capable of doing its job.  Here I’m going to give you two suggestions to help with this situation, which are included in my workbook as well. The goal of both of these suggestions is to help you improve the function of your higher brain/prefrontal cortex, so that you’ll be able to call upon it to resist binge urges, even when you are feeling overwhelmed, overworked, or exhausted.

1.)   Basic Self-Care (not Self-Indulgence) to Boost the Higher Brain

Having demands on your life and your time, and having a strong desire or unavoidable need to help others does not have to affect your ability to recover. However, if you are currently struggling to resist urges, it could be that your higher brain/prefrontal cortex is depleted of energy resources. Research shows that self-control is like a muscle and can get drained when we are exhausted, overworked, or undernourished; so that in these situations, the brain is primed to let survival mechanisms and habits—good or bad—run the show.[1]  This does not mean you have to get nine hours of sleep a night, take a vacation, or buy expensive vitamin supplements in order to resist binge urges. It only means: if you are currently unable to resist the urges, make sure you are not sabotaging your higher brain by neglecting your most basic needs—a decent amount of sleep, a little relaxation, and adequate food intake.

Being tired, overwhelmed, and exhausted won’t be a problem for you (as it pertains to recovery) in the future when your new habit is to not binge. Even though you may not be at your best if you don’t sleep well or have worked a long, stressful week, binge eating won’t cross your mind.  Since recovery, I’ve had long stretches of time where I got vastly insufficient sleep—mostly due to my four babies who were terrible sleepers (I’m talking maybe 2-4 non-continuous hours a night for many months at a time); and not once did binge eating cross my mind. There are times in life when self-sacrifice is necessary and something you gladly accept, and that won’t change just because you have a history of binge eating.

What I’m suggesting here is a focus on basic self-care as a short-term tool (of course, taking care of yourself is always a good idea) to help your higher brain during the time when resisting urges is a new skill and therefore takes up more energy reserves in the higher brain. Once you get better at dismissing the urges, it won’t be as demanding on the higher brain, so even if you don’t sleep, or your kids or boss drive you absolutely crazy that day—you’ll still have the energy reserves to easily resist to the urges. Then your urges will gradually fade, and won’t come up even if you do choose to devote all of your time and energy to others; even if circumstances temporarily prevent you from meeting your basic needs.

If you are going through a time in your life right now that you feel is depleting your self-control, my advice for you would be to analyze the situation and try to find areas of opportunity for sleep, rest, and nutritional improvements. Even if you can carve out an extra half hour for sleep each night or a ten minute nap during the day, and try to make sure you don’t skip meals to save time—that will benefit your prefrontal cortex. Remind yourself what you are still capable of resisting urges, no matter the situation, but forgive yourself if you don’t do it every time. You are, after all, working with less self-control resources, so be patient and congratulate yourself on the times you are successful and build from there. Try to find small moments of self-awareness in the midst of the difficulty of your life, and that will help you feel more centered and connected to your higher brain when urges arise.

2.)   Short Meditation Sessions  

Another way to help you feel more grounded and able to use your higher brain is adding very short meditation sessions to your day. Even five minutes of meditation every day will give you increased self-control and self-awareness, important benefits for someone trying to quit a bad habit. There are many ways to meditate; and you can find something that works for you (I’ve included a short description of a useful meditation technique below). I am not suggesting meditation as a form of relaxation or feeling better, although it can certainly serve that purpose as well. I am suggesting that you meditate as a form of strength training for the higher brain—so that it will be more resistant to stress-induced energy depletion.

Your goal during meditation will be notice when your mind wonders and bring it back to a focal point—the breath is an easy focal point, but you can also focus on something physical like the feeling of your feet or hands; or focus on a certain word or phrase that you repeat over and over. This act of drawing the mind back from distraction and habitual thought activates the higher brain. Something I wish I would have known when I was a binge eater is that you aren’t meditating “wrong” if your mind keeps wondering. When unwanted thoughts pop up, that’s your opportunity to put your higher brain to use, redirecting your focus, and therefore change your brain.

You may have to refocus 100 times during a short meditation when you first start, but if you keep practicing, you will get better—both at meditating, and at awareness of automatic thought in general, which will carry over through the day. Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, and builds stronger connections in the area of the brain responsible for self-control, which will benefit you in times when your life is demanding. Research indicates that self-control and ability to focus increases after just three hours (not all at one time) of meditation, and one can see visible brain changes after eleven hours.[2]  Just 5 minutes once or twice a day will add up quickly, and you may start experiencing positive benefits and increased awareness right away. I realize if you are busy or exhausted, taking 5 minutes to meditate is going to seem like a waste of time, but if you can get over that mental barrier and just do it, you might notice benefits right away.

If you need a little guidance getting started, try the following simple meditation, adapted from The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., an expert in the science of self-control.[3]

  1. Sit still and stay still. You can choose to sit on a chair with your feet flat on the ground or you can sit on the floor with your legs crossed. During the meditation, try to resist any impulses to move (for example, see if you can ignore itches and urges to change your position). Sitting still is important because it teaches you not to follow your impulses automatically.
  2. Turn your attention to your breath. Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. In your mind, say “inhale” when you breathe in, and “exhale” when you breathe out. Whenever you notice that your thoughts are wandering, bring your mind back to focusing on your breathing. This activates the prefrontal cortex and quiets the stress and craving centers of your brain.
  3. Notice how it feels to breathe and how thoughts wander. After a few minutes, stop mentally reciting the words “inhale” and “exhale,” and focus only on the sensation of breathing. Your thoughts might wander a bit more without these words. When you notice that you are thinking about something else, just bring your attention back to breathing. If you find it very hard to focus, you can say “inhale” and “exhale” for few rounds.  This part helps to train both self-awareness and self-control.




[1] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 57)

[2] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

[3] The Willpower Instinct, by Kelly McGonigal (pg. 25)

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