How to Manage Stress for Healthy Willpower

Stress saps willpower. In order to use willpower effectively you need to understand stress and how to manage it. Evolution has bequeathed you with a highly tuned system for responding to threats. In a crisis, this aids survival by giving you just three options, sometimes referred to as the three Fs: fight, flee or freeze.

But, usually, today’s stressors are more chronic than acute, such as the threats posed by being made redundant at work, potential failure at an exam or the ending of a relationship. These threats, or worrying about them, can ratchet up your stress levels for months or even years.

Perceiving and coping with stress

Stress can be defined as a mental and physical state of arousal in response to a situation you perceive to be beyond your capacity to cope with.

Sometimes your perceptions are accurate. If you’re told to double your productivity at work, for example, you experience stress, because this sounds like a tall order. Your perception that it’s beyond your capacity is right. But if your boss says you have unrealised potential and can achieve much more, the situation is more ambiguous.

The first step in overcoming a tendency to predict negative outcomes is to reflect on a situation where you acted more like a prophet of doom rather than a more balanced forecaster! This enables you to recognise negative thinking biases and replace them with more balanced predictions. You’ll have more willpower available as a result. Try this:

  1. Recall a recent situation that you felt stressed about in advance.

    It may have been a meeting at work, a job interview, a social gathering or simply a tedious journey.

  2. Write down your prediction about how you would experience the impending event and how stressed or anxious that made you feel.

  3. Recall what actually happened.

  4. Ask yourself whether the experience was as bad as you’d imagined it would be.

    Most likely, the situation entailed some nervousness at the beginning but was unlikely to match the scary expectations!

  5. Apply this method to a forthcoming event that you feel stressed about.

    Are you ‘awfulising’ the event by imagining the worst case scenario?

Although things can and do sometimes go wrong, most people tend to overestimate the chances of this happening and how bad the situation would be if it did. This can make you stressed, deplete your willpower and, ironically, increase the chances of things going awry.

Depleting your willpower

Experiencing and reacting quickly to stressors or threats is essential for survival. However, prolonged exposure to high levels of stress can reduce your brain’s efficiency in two ways:

  • The worrying thoughts usually associated with stress draw energy away from your willpower muscle – the parts of the brain involved in planning and decision-making.

  • Stress diverts mental energy away from the command-and-control centre of the brain – the seat of your willpower – and activates the more impulsive parts of your brain, called hot-brain circuits. Think back to the last time you were angry and swore – a typical example of a lack of willpower.

Reacting to chronic stress

Your body and nervous system can adjust to acute or sudden stress very efficiently with no apparent ill effects. However, in response to frequent or prolonged stress, your body releases hormones including the steroid cortisol. Cortisol can reduce the ability of your brain cells to maintain and repair themselves. This fact is meant to inform you, not alarm you: prolonged exposure to extreme stress is, fortunately, rare.

In many cases, the problem is that the stress is subtle, for instance linked to pressure to perform highly at work or to tension in a personal relationship. This hidden form of stress can undermine willpower by reducing your brain’s fitness. The best way to counteract this is to monitor your levels of stress and find ways to de-stress or relax.

Learning to relax doesn’t require very much willpower in itself, and even short periods of relaxation can reduce stress levels. Physical exercise, socialising or just giving yourself five to ten minutes’ breathing space can help you reduce stress.

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