This is what would happen before I could stop the crazy rush of panic chemicals:
Stress response to the thought of change – adrenaline, etc.
Reduction in cognitive resources, narrowing, sense of danger, alert
Escalation of stress response, based on sense of narrowing options, bad past experiences
Fear / anxiety / dread mixture runs the show
Chase back to how things are – get content, stay stuck
Before, I would escalate really quickly, thinking that I couldn’t manage, or that I was trapped. The stress response would trigger a physical reaction with me that would make me feel like I was blocked in and didn’t have a way out, and I would begin to panic. It didn’t matter if the change was something as basic as fixing a curtain rod that had come loose from the wall, or starting a new job. I would still feel it coming on and have the same catastrophic reaction. And because my own personal catastrophic reaction often involves involuntary crying, and I cannot stand to cry in front of people for no apparent reason, I avoided a lot of situations that I feared would get hold of me.
But now, I have a different way of handling things, and so far it’s working pretty well — when I remember to do it, of course 😉
This is what is possible now, when I stop the escalation of stress chemicals and use my breathing for a minute and a half to calm everything down:
Ability to shift the physical experience by breathing and other coping mechanisms
Clearing of stress response broadens options, opens thinking
From fear / anxiety / dread into anticipation / engagement / hope
Basically, the difference is like night and day. The old storms that would come up don’t have to anymore. I have a way to calm them down and think more clearly about what is in front of me. And most importantly, I don’t feel like I’m hemmed in, simply because of a physical response.
My nervous system is wired to be, well, wired. It’s automatic with me. I’ve been trained that way by life. Now I need to train myself to be another way.
New pictures from the University of Iowa show what it looks like when a person runs out of patience and loses self-control.
A study by University of Iowa neuroscientist and neuromarketing expert William Hedgcock confirms previous studies that show self-control is a finite commodity that is depleted by use. Once the pool has dried up, we’re less likely to keep our cool the next time we’re faced with a situation that requires self-control.
But Hedgcock’s study is the first to actually show it happening in the brain using fMRI images that scan people as they perform self-control tasks. The images show the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—the part of the brain that recognizes a situation in which self-control is needed and says, “Heads up, there are multiple responses to this situation and some might not be good”—fires with equal intensity throughout the task.
However, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC)—the part of the brain that manages self-control and says, “I really want to do the dumb thing, but I should overcome that impulse and do the smart thing”—fires with less intensity after prior exertion of self-control.
fMRI image of brain activity when people exert self-control. Image adapted from University of Iowa press release image.
He said that loss of activity in the DLPFC might be the person’s self-control draining away. The stable activity in the ACC suggests people have no problem recognizing a temptation. Although they keep fighting, they have a harder and harder time not giving in.
Which would explain why someone who works very hard not to take seconds of lasagna at dinner winds up taking two pieces of cake at desert. The study could also modify previous thinking that considered self-control to be like a muscle. Hedgcock says his images seem to suggest that it’s like a pool that can be drained by use then replenished through time in a lower conflict environment, away from temptations that require its use.
The researchers gathered their images by placing subjects in an MRI scanner and then had them perform two self-control tasks—the first involved ignoring words that flashed on a computer screen, while the second involved choosing preferred options. The study found the subjects had a harder time exerting self-control on the second task, a phenomenon called “regulatory depletion.” Hedgcock says that the subjects’ DLPFCs were less active during the second self-control task, suggesting it was harder for the subjects to overcome their initial response.
Brain activity after people have been engaged in self-control tasks long enough that their self-control resources have been depleted. Image and description credit to University of Iowa.
Hedgcock says the study is an important step in trying to determine a clearer definition of self-control and to figure out why people do things they know aren’t good for them. One possible implication is crafting better programs to help people who are trying to break addictions to things like food, shopping, drugs, or alcohol. Some therapies now help people break addictions by focusing at the conflict recognition stage and encouraging the person to avoid situations where that conflict arises. For instance, an alcoholic should stay away from places where alcohol is served.
But Hedgcock says his study suggests new therapies might be designed by focusing on the implementation stage instead. For instance, he says dieters sometimes offer to pay a friend if they fail to implement control by eating too much food, or the wrong kind of food. That penalty adds a real consequence to their failure to implement control and increases their odds of choosing a healthier alternative.
The study might also help people who suffer from a loss of self-control due to birth defect or brain injury.
Hedgcock’s paper, “Reducing self-control depletion effects through enhanced sensitivity to implementation: Evidence from fMRI and behavioral studies,” was co-authored by Kathleen Vohs and Akshay Rao of the University of Minnesota. It will be published in January 2013 in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.