It doesn’t take much soul-searching to find a strong correlation between stressful days at work, school or your personal life and not-so-healthy behaviors. We’re a lot more likely to cave to stops for unhealthy food on the way home or late-night texts to toxic exes when we’re emotionally drained by other stresses. High-pressure experiences threaten and tear down our sense of self-control, and that’s really no surprise — our minds only have so much they can manage each day, and when our energy is devoted toward tackling stressful situations, there’s not a lot of bandwidth left for much else.
A study by the University of Zurich found just how strongly even moderate levels of stress can compromise our self-control. According to Scientific American, the study’s researchers put a group of participants who were dedicated to a healthy lifestyle through a treatment known to be moderately stressful — soaking their hands in ice water for three minutes while undergoing an evaluation by the scientists. Afterward, participants were asked to choose between two types of food: something delicious but very unhealthy or something good for them. Despite their health-related goals, they were far more likely to choose the unhealthy option than participants who did not undergo the stressful treatment before choosing between the foods.
The lesson here is that even somewhat middle-of-the-road stressors (the kind we’re most likely to encounter in an average day,) are powerful in convincing your mind to value immediate gratification over smarter choices. This is a great example of why so many businesses that sell wasteful, shoddy products (like objectively unhealthy/overpriced food or clothes that quickly fall apart) continue to thrive — we get stressed at work, convince ourselves we “deserve” those items on our way home for a sense of relief but find ourselves broke or uncomfortably full, and repeat the cycle all over again the next day when we inevitably face more stress. It’s practically funding the entire American economy! (I kid! Sort of.)
I’m not very fond of the phrase “self-control,” because its very essence sounds negative, as if it’s about scrubbing out our natural human inclinations to whittle ourselves down to perfection. It’s shame-inducing, because it implies we’re supposed to have this “control” figured out by now and that every day we aren’t fighting our most basic (flawed, messy, totally normal) impulses is a failure. That’s unfortunate, because the concept is actually a very powerful and positive thing when channeled for the better. It’s about putting our long-term needs and dreams over instantaneous desires, and about maximizing the time and energy we do have to create the best possible versions of ourselves. It’s the path away from ending up using all of our non-working hours to live in the land of reality TV binges, half-baked ideas and what-ifs –and maybe that’s why we’d do better to use similar words like “willpower” or “discipline” in its place. All that said, here are some simple ways to keep our self-control (or whatever else you want to call it) intact during stressful times.
- Treat self-control like a muscle. Like any other skill, both physical or mental, self-control can be built up like a muscle and requires repeated practicing to do so. Very few of us are masters at it without practice, but many people make the assumption that you’re either born with self-control or you’re not. Instead, it’s something anyone can become great at with the right amount of resolve and effort. Just like you’d go easy on your muscles when you first start working out, don’t expect amazing feats of willpower from the very start. If you’re drained from a stressful day, set very simple goals for yourself surrounding self-control, and recognize that it’s not your fault if you struggle at first.
- Plan tough stuff for the morning. When you rise with a clear head, there are fewer tempting distractions to veer you off course. This is also when most people have the most self-control they’ll have all day because the mind is just starting out and hasn’t had to make any major decisions or confront much stress yet.
- Learn when you work best. That said, every individual has certain times of the day or situations when their mind is sharpest. Once you know when yours are, schedule activities that require lots of willpower during those times.
- Go to the source – stress! Talk to a therapist or find calming rituals that can help you combat stress at its core. If you have any draining regular commitments that aren’t actually very beneficial to anyone, or spend lots of time with toxic people who only add to your stress, back away. Pare life down wherever possible. Also practice building your self-control during times when you’re not stressed, because this will make it feel more like second nature during tougher times.
- Develop go-to coping mechanisms. Does running clear your head? Calling your mom? Writing in a journal? These things can provide a positive outlet when a lack of willpower is tempting you to channel your stress into getting blackout drunk or bailing on a commitment so you can watch trash TV.
- Write down your goals. Put them in a place where you can see them easily. The next time you’re struggling with self-control after a tough day, those goals will be more clear in your memory and will remind you what you’re working so hard for. This will help you stay strong in avoiding temptations.
- Have a friend hold you accountable. When our mind is messing with us (you know, by playing its favorite game of forgetting any semblance of cause and effect and telling us that we need nothing more in this life than whatever self-destructive habit we want to indulge in), best friends are there to snap you back into reality. They can see past your tunnel vision and know you well enough to know when to remind you of those goals you’re trying so hard not to sabotage.
- Accept imperfection. Striving for absolute self-control will always be an impossible uphill battle, because humans simply aren’t built that way. Beating yourself up for slipping up can create a negative cycle of all-or-nothing thinking, which can just enable you to slide further into destructive behavior. Be gentle with yourself. All we can do is our best, and our best is often far from perfect, and thank God for that, because then how boring would life be? I promise that nobody else has perfect self-control either, no matter how they want to portray their lives.