The Practice of Self-Control By Monique Reynolds, Ph.D. and Georgia Ferrell Share +

Posted by: coronadosafe 3 years, 10 months ago

Over the last few months, we’ve talked about the importance of developing awareness of our thoughts and emotions, especially the most difficult ones. That foundation of awareness sets the stage for developing your next skill: tolerating urges and practicing self-control.

Last week, a young man was discussing sobriety. He had been in and out of rehab a number of times and talked about the hardest part of staying sober – THE URGES. Now truthfully, urges are a hard one for all of us. Whether the urge is to yell, to escape, to take a drink, to control, we often have urges that push us towards self-destructive behaviors. Resisting that urge and letting it pass seems unbearable.

Learning to tolerate urges is not something that comes naturally for most people. Yet, when we feel those anxious, angry, or addictive urges, tolerating the urge instead of acting on it is a key component of practicing self-control. Self-control, sometimes called self-regulation, affects nearly all aspects of healthy living - eating right, exercising, avoiding drugs and alcohol, studying more, working harder, saving more and spending less. Without it people could be impulsive, overly-emotional, lashing out with anger, blurting out the first thing that comes to mind, and engaging in whatever behavior feels good in the moment.

Decades of research has identified self-control as one of two main traits associated with a range of positive outcomes in life – financial success, career satisfaction, happiness, healthy relationships, etc. They have also found that self-control can be developed, much like a muscle. Understanding what happens biologically during these moments can help us tolerate the distress and build our self-control.

Whenever an urge is triggered, our instinct is to act on that urge. In these moments, we are acting primarily from our limbic system, the brain system responsible for instinct, emotion and reward. It is what drives things like hunger and pleasure seeking. The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is the primary region associated with self-control and is responsible for planning and reasoning. This region is also responsible for processing raw emotions and basic urges from the limbic system. While the reaction from the limbic system is immediate, the processing through the prefrontal cortex can take a few additional moments. This is where self-control comes in. If you can pause during those urges, you allow your prefrontal cortex those critical few moments to reengage. At that point, rather than reacting to the immediate impulse, we can plan, evaluate alternatives, and refrain from doing things we would regret.

So how do we tolerate the urges in order to pause long enough to get to that thoughtful moment? A practice of mindfulness seems to be one of the best tools we have. Mindfulness is the act of paying attention to the present moment, accepting it but not reacting to it with judgement or impulsive behavior. Being able to use this skill when it counts depends heavily on practice. Much like when working on a good baseball swing, you need continual, repetitive practice to ensure that your swing becomes second nature and that you’re ready to use it in the big game. Similarly, we practice being mindful in the simple moments so that we’re ready to face our biggest challenges when they arise.

Take the challenge:

Practice mindfulness when you’re NOT have a strong urge or craving. Spend 5 minutes each morning just sitting and focusing on your breath. When you notice an itch or another discomfort, observe it passively without acting on it. Instead, pay attention to how it feels and how the sensation changes with your awareness. The itch may grow or shrink, or it may change to a slow burn. You may notice thoughts, like “Just scratch the itch!!” Your task through each of these thoughts, sensations and urges, is to remain the observer. Do not take any action, just maintain your mindful awareness on your breath. You may notice that the urge to scratch becomes less compelling and your self-control “muscles” become stronger with each passing moment.

For more information about mindfulness and self-control, check out our website at www.coronadosafe.org. Join us next month as we build our Skills for Life.