The human mind loves to think it’s in control. It makes us feel safe and secure knowing that when we get out of bed each morning, we have the power to make our own decisions and dictate our own lifestyle. There is a very strong ideology in our culture that personal control is a power that we all carry – we have free choice. For most people, however, this doesn’t seem to work out so well. While it seems like we hold the ability and freedom to make proper choices, we still seem to get sucked into impulsive behavior. Making choices that cause us harm – even though we should know better.
The idea that we are in control of our behavior is false. We do in fact have the ability to make choices and take positive action in every aspect of our life and the situations that we encounter. But this capacity for conscious control is a limited resource.
The Subconscious Mind Is Your Auto-Pilot
We like to believe that we are in the driver seat, but what is actually happening is that we spend most of our time drifting in and out of thought (past or future oriented) while the subconscious mind is reacting to our present environment. For the most part, we aren’t even really there. This means that we are almost always vulnerable to making decisions that we may not even be consciously aware of.
This is easy enough to illustrate. The next time you are eating breakfast or sitting on the couch watching TV in the evening, ask yourself: “What am I thinking? Where are my thoughts.” You can be sure that when you check in with yourself at any given moment, you are most certainly thinking about something that has nothing to do with the present moment.
So then, if you are not fully present, how are you able to function? Don’t worry, it`s your subconscious mind at work, and it has you covered. The subconscious mind is able to navigate us through each day based on a vast depth of stored information. This aspect of the mind is loaded with many different programs such as driving, eating, and walking for example.
But one thing that your subconscious mind cannot do without your conscious mind available is register whether or not what you are eating for breakfast or why you are sitting on the couch (instead of doing something else) is actually in your best interests. Your awareness needs to be activated in order to make those decisions. Otherwise, you are just assuming that whatever you find yourself doing at any given time must be the right thing.
Even what you choose at the grocery store can be a result of this unaware decision making, even though it may seem like it is really you making the choices. It`s not, most of the time. These are the programs that have been imprinted into the subconscious mind. These impressions are formulated from our previous experiences and what we are exposed to through the media (the media and advertising love to make us believe that we are in control of our decision making.) But when your awareness finally catches up with you while you are halfway through the container of ice cream, you finally notice that maybe this wasn't the best way to spend the last hours of your evening.
Ego Depletion and The Prefrontal Cortex
The frontal area of the brain is your control center. It is called the prefrontal cortex, and it is from this area of the brain where you are in control and able to make conscious decision while exercising strong willpower. This is where your ability to inhibit unwanted behavior is generated. The prefrontal cortex allows for you to pay attention, think logically, solve problems and concentrate on goals.
This brain is very much like a muscle. So just like any part of the muscle, the prefrontal cortex can get tired and worn out. Since this is where your willpower is stored, it has been found that we only have a certain amount of willpower to draw from each day before this muscle (the brain) becomes depleted. With each decision you make each day, you are using up this balance of willpower bit by bit until there is nothing left. In psychology, this term is called ego depletion. This is why the evening and time before bed seems to be the hardest to control your discipline and decision making abilities.
Stress Affects Your Decision Making
Another thing that affects the prefrontal cortex and our ability to make rational decisions is stress. It has been shown through extensive research that stress – mental or physical – actually shuts down the prefrontal cortex in order to activate survival mode. During stressful situations, our instant reaction is to seek reward to help relieve stress as soon as possible. From this state of mind, it becomes very difficult to control impulse. High fat, high sugar and salt foods help calm the stressed brain. These types of stimulants also reduce cortisol, which is also referred to as the stress hormone.
When we are less stressed, we have much better access to the control center of our brain and have a better working memory – which helps us remember which decisions would be in our best interest at any given time. Within this level of awareness we are able to create space between our self and the situation instead of getting lost in impulsive thoughts and compulsive, short term choices.
As we give in to impulsive behavior, like overeating or smoking, there can be an underlying sense of depression. Such inner conflict arises from the ideology that we should be able to have more control over our actions, but we keep repeating the same behavior.
Techniques to Develop Strong Willpower
Some of these behavior patterns are impressed so strongly into our minds that it becomes extremely tough to change these habits. It is far easier to repeat the same choices when confronted with a sensitive situation than it would be to consciously make a different choice. This explains why it is so hard to resist the same temptations, even when you know that it would be much more beneficial not to reach for that second or third donut.
The best way to build a healthier sense of strong willpower and reclaim control over how you live is by practicing awareness – activating the prefrontal cortex. Here are some of the strongest and most powerful techniques.
Mindful Body Scan – Your brain is fully capable of accomplishing tasks without your full attention. You can perform tasks such as eating without being fully aware. It is easy to fall into autopilot and just let the conditioned mind react to the habitual happenings as much as possible – it’s just comfortable. By practicing awareness, you are able to gain more control and shape your experience life. We are practicing the ability to realize your intentions instead of just reacting to each situation. Checking in with the body and taking the time to bring awareness to different parts of the physical body is a powerful way to implement awareness and activate this part of the conscious brain. This is also a great way to shift your perception and step away from negative thoughts, creating space and being able to act from a place of controlled inner strength. Try this body awareness exercise.
Meditation – When we meditate, we are trying to sustain our attention on an object of the present moment, such as the breath, the sound of rainfall, a candle or simply silence itself. Throughout this process, all kinds of thoughts are arising trying to get our attention. As this happens, we are constantly bringing our attention back into focus until the space between the thoughts become greater and we are no longer engaged. We do this over and over again, and what happens each time is that there is a burst of activity taking place in the prefrontal cortex (the control center of our brain.) This can be considered an actual workout for this part of the brain muscle. Consistent meditation practice has been shown to strengthen the prefrontal cortex and produce white matter in this area of the brain.
Breathing Exercise – Practicing proper breathing and doing breathing exercises is one of the best ways to trigger the relaxation response and release stress. When you are less stressed, your focus and awareness is sharp and on point with a sense of strong willpower. This mindset allows us to make better decisions and think with a clear mind. Breathing is our direct connection with pure life. By focusing on the breath and bringing intention to how we breathe, we are inviting a stronger energy into our awareness.