Monday, February 25, 2013

The Willpower Experiment: Week Six

My friend Sonnet and I are on Week Six of our Willpower Experiment, based on the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. To read the previous posts from this series, click here. Pardon my language, but Chapter Six is called "What the Hell: How Feeling Bad Leads to Giving In." I'll let Sonnet starts us off this week!

“Our stresses, anxieties, pains, and problems arise because we do not see the world, others, or even ourselves as worthy of love. (9)”
Prem Prakash, The Yoga of Spiritual Devotion A Modern Translation of the Narada Bhakti Sutras

I decided to lead with this beautiful quote by Prem Prakash because it captures so much of what Chapter Six is about. The world is a stressful place, driving us to seek out comfort in our actions. When we react to these choices in ways that aren’t loving and supportive of our selves, we end up hurting; and the unhappy person within us makes repeatedly worse decisions as we seek even greater comfort. The only way out, the only way to make good willpower choices, is to act in love.

Stress is all around us, affecting every one, every day. Work, family responsibilities, financial struggles, health issues. Loud noises and traffic can cause stress. This chapter showed how just watching the news can be a source of stress as we subconsciously note all of the terror attacks, earthquakes, floods, car accidents, kidnappings and school shootings in our world. Our brains are driven to seek relief, to find comfort in any manner available. And what is the obvious choice? Dopamine rushes, just like we talked about in Chapter Five. These hit our reward center in just the right way and promise us happiness, calm, relief. So we turn to food, sex, money, spending hours on the internet, and other impulsive or even harmful behaviors because they promise to make us feel better.

Beth chiming in here! It's fascinating that "according to the American Psychological Association (APA), the most commonly used strategies for dealing with stress are those that activate the brain's reward system: eating, drinking, shopping, watching television, surfing the Web, and playing video games.... The most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them" (p. 134).

We're back to my confession last week about repeatedly checking Facebook, being convinced I'll somehow find pleasure there. And I can definitely see the stress connection. When I'm stressed out, sometimes my brain rebels against doing anything that requires more focus or energy than clicking "Like" and "Comment"! Hearing an expert tell me that this is an ineffective way of dealing with stress is making a difference. It's making me think twice before I spend long periods of time scrolling through my News Feed! Why do we automatically return to behaviors that aren't helpful, and may be harmful, when we're stressed? Sonnet explains it here:

Stress triggers your fight-or-flight response, and it will always favor the short-term over the long term. So as stress and anxiety in your environment increase, so do impulsive behaviors. Willpower goes right out the door.

What’s funny is we know what behaviors work to reduce stress. This chapter has a great list of them...

...and I'm going to put that whole list here, because I found it so insightful. These behaviors genuinely work to reduce stress (quoted from p. 137):
  • exercising or playing  sports
  • praying or attending a religious service
  • reading
  • listening to music
  • spending time with friends or family
  • getting a massage
  • going outside for a walk
  • meditating or doing yoga
  • spending time with a creative hobby
When I watch TV, I usually want to be doing something else. I used to sit there on my computer, on Facebook or blogs, as if combining two ineffective stress relief activities would help. (All it did was annoy my husband, who knew I was only half-watching the TV!) But since I started crocheting a couple of years ago, that's usually my go-to television activity. And when I see the list above, I realize that's a great thing to do! Television itself doesn't reduce my stress. But crocheting is relaxing. I can spend time with my husband watching a show we enjoy, while I practice my "creative hobby." To me it feels so much better than just zoning off in front of what the "boob tube."

Those activities have all been well studied and always come through to dramatically make us really feel better, when chocolate binges won’t. But we don’t choose them. Why not? Because they don’t have an associated dopamine rush. They don’t feel heady, they don’t have that “rush” to them, so we underestimate the effect they will have. We assume activities need to feel “dopamine-y” to make us feel better, when that’s not the case.

"Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on the promise of reward," McGonigal explains, "the real stress relievers boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin" (p. 137).

Both last night and this morning, I was feeling stressed out, not quite prepared to take on what I expected to be a busy Monday. And I knew I needed to exercise, but I didn't want to. Last night, there was certainly no dopamine promising me pleasure if I got off the couch. And this morning not only was there a lack of dopamine telling me to exercise; I was also being begged to stay in bed by my warm covers, who can be very convincing.

McGonigal suggests that you find "a way to remind your stressed-out self what actually makes you feel better"( p. 139). Both last night and this morning, I just reminded myself that I would feel better if I got up and moved. I know that's true from personal experience. It was late last night--too late for a full workout--but I took a few minutes to get up and just move a bit, in my living room. I felt so much better! And this morning I (eventually!) convinced myself to get out of bed, and sure enough, a brisk walk was just what I needed to start my busy day on a positive note. When dopamine isn't telling us that a positive action is rewarding, we have to depend on what we know is truly rewarding instead.

So let's talk about how guilt keeps us from meeting our goals. If you're "good at guilt" like me, you need to read this part! Here's Sonnet:

Making poor choices can be a vicious cycle. You begin by being worried about one thing, which leads you to make a negative willpower choice, and then your guilt about that choice makes you feel bad, so you seek relief from that feeling and you make another poor choice. How often have you been tempted by “just a bite” of a rich dessert, felt bad about giving in, and ended up eating the entire thing? (I know I have!) The idea that guilt over a lapse in willpower makes us feel bad, so we are driven to make more unhealthy choices, is a well-known one.

Says Dr. McGonigal, “‘I’ve already broken my [diet, budget, sobriety, resolution], so what the hell, I might as well really enjoy myself.’ Crucially it’s not the first giving-in that guarantees the bigger relapse. It’s the feelings of shame, guilt, loss of control, and loss of hope that follow the first relapse. Once you’re stuck in the cycle, it can seem like there’s no way out except to keep going.” When we talk to ourselves in a critical way, like an angry parent scolding a child, we make this cycle worse. We deepen our feelings of shame and make it more likely that we will have little choice but to continue making bad decisions.

The way out, as Prem Prakash said, is love. Treating ourselves gently and kindly, with respect and compassion, stops this cycle. Reminding ourselves that everyone makes mistakes, or indulges once in a while, or struggles to always make the ‘right’ decisions, means we don’t feel the shame and guilt so acutely. Then we aren’t as driven to seek further dopamine comfort. We’re also more willing to face our lapses and really examine what went on, and make changes so we can do better in the future.

"As soon as I mention self-forgiveness in class," Dr. McGonigal writes (p. 147), "the arguments start pouring in. You would think I had just suggested that the secret to more willpower was throwing kittens in front of speeding buses.... To many people, self forgiveness sounds like excuse-making that will only lead to greater self-indulgence."

Do you relate? I do! However, "Study after study shows that self-criticism is consistently associated with less motivation and worse self-control. It is also one of the single biggest predictors of depression, which drains both 'I will' power and 'I want' power" (p. 148).

If I believe in a God who forgives my sins, then that begs the question, would He really want me to beat myself up over my mistakes and bad choices? Yes, God wants me to become more like him--but surely that includes being a forgiver...even forgiving myself.

In addition to remembering that mistakes are part of being human, McGonigal also suggests thinking about how you'd talk to a friend who'd made the same mistake, and then talking to yourself that way. These perspectives help us to move past the guilt feelings, which actually get in the way of learning from our bad choices. And what a relief to live in grace instead of guilt!

I'll let Sonnet close our discussion for this week.

When we hear the word “WILLPOWER” we so often associate it with cold hard strength. With being able to shut off emotions and get the job done, powering through the temptations of physical comforts. This chapter turns all that on its head. This chapter shows the true power of kindness and gentleness, especially towards our selves. It’s impressive!

I was given a complimentary copy of this book and paid for my initial review; however, this in-depth series is uncompensated.

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