Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In the Face of Adversity: Healthy Behaviors

I'm sure it is not news to anyone that we are in the midst of a public health crisis in this country. And the major culprit in that health crisis is the failure of the American people to engage in a consistent fashion in healthy behaviors. Poor diet and lack of regular exercise have created the health crisis. The percentage of Americans who are overweight and obese has skyrocketed and with that an epidemic of cardiovascular problems and other disorders which, in large part, are preventable. The adversity that we are facing many would say is self-induced. So what role does willpower play in all of this? Research would support the idea that limited willpower is a primary roadblock to maintaining a healthy weight. This is especially true with children, with some of the research from the University of Pennsylvania suggesting that children with better self-control were less likely to become overweight as they transitioned to adolescence. As we have discussed in previous blogs, the role of willpower depletion may also play a major role here. We live in a society that tempts us many times each day with food and drink. We often end up in situations where we have unlimited choices about what to eat or drink. As in the previous blog, money and financial resources play a role. Fresh produce costs more than those in a can of junk food. So one might expect that by the end of the day, after being tempted repeatedly, our willpower may be sagging. The extra helping of lasagna or a dessert after dinner may look very attractive. Some research has suggested that willpower depletion may be even more important than bad moods in contributing to our overeating and other bad choices we make regarding food. As indicated in the previous blog, our beliefs and our attitudes may buffer us to some degree from the effects of willpower depletion. If we believe strongly in the concept of self-control and the importance of maintaining a strict diet, perhaps because we might die prematurely if we do not, we may be more likely to be less affected by willpower depletion. So what can be done with the knowledge that we have gained regarding willpower depletion and the issue of overeating and obesity? Overeating behaviors are certainly complex, with numerous psychological and neurological underpinnings. Many believe that stressing self-control and personal choice will stigmatize people with weight problems and make it unlikely that they will be motivated to lose weight. And, indeed, it is the environment that we live in that constantly bombards us with ads for fast food and relatively cheap processed meals. And we are bombarded with these messages 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Willpower depletion appears to also play a role in the abuse of other substances, such as tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs. In one study, social drinkers who exercised self-control in a lab setting went on to drink more alcohol in a supposed “taste test” than subjects who didn’t previously dip into their willpower pool. Other studies have supported these findings. Exercising willpower in one setting may undermine our ability to resist temptation in another, perhaps unrelated area of our life. These issues are complex, and as the old saying goes, “More research is needed.” But at this point, it appears clear that willpower plays a role in overeating and our inability to stick with a diet. Willpower depletion caused by an environment in which we are constantly tempted may be the major villain in this story. It is also clear that learning the skills and the attitudes of self-control at an early age may help us in later years to make better choices regarding exercise, diet and the abuse of substances. More about strategies for managing willpower in the next blog. For more information on willpower and the studies that were discussed in this blog, go to the American Psychological Association. “What You Need to Know about Willpower, the Psychological Science of Self-control,” written by Kirsten Weir, www.apahelpcenter.org. Ron Breazeale, Ph.D. Author, Duct Tape Isn’t Enough www.reachinghome.com

In the face of adversity: Strengthening Self-Control

We live in a society where we are expected to eat, drink and buy things, many of which we don’t need. I'm sure we can all remember George W. Bush encouraging us to go shopping in the middle of a recession. It is our patriotic duty to be good consumers. Right? Unfortunately, being a good consumer may devastate our health and result in financial disaster. So what are we to do to look out for ourselves in a society that is clearly not looking out for us? The first strategy is a relatively simple one to describe, but a difficult one to implement in this society. It involves avoiding temptation. We know from research, both with children and adults, that this is one of the best ways of maintaining self-control. For example, children who stare directly at a treat that they would like, such as a marshmallow, are less likely to resist it than kids who close their eyes, turn away, or otherwise distract themselves. Likewise, adults who keep candy in a desk drawer indulge less than those who keep candy in plain sight. AA understands this principle well when they encourage people in recovery to avoid people, places and things associated with alcohol and substance abuse. Another helpful technique that psychologists have used for years is called “implementation intention.” This psychobabble phrase refers to helping people plan for situations that may occur that will deplete their willpower. For example, if you are in recovery making a plan for Friday afternoon when your friends will want to go to happy hour, may help you to stay sober without drawing on your willpower. But what are we to do as human beings if we possess only a limited reserve of self-control and willpower? There are so many temptations in our society. Will we always fail? The good news is that many researchers believe that willpower is never completely exhausted, that people may, indeed, hold some willpower in reserve for future temptations. Motivation appears to be the answer. Being motivated to persevere, even when our self-control has been run down. Many of those who do research on self-control describe self-control as being like a muscle that gets fatigued with heavy use. But like a muscle, it can be made stronger with regular exercise. Australian scientists studying willpower found that research participants who were able to stick with an exercise program over a 2-month period allowed participants to show more self-control in other areas, such as smoking and drinking, eating healthier food, monitoring their spending more carefully and improving their study habits. The conclusion was that regularly exercising willpower with physical exercise led to stronger willpower in other areas of their lives. The findings that we have discussed regarding willpower depletion and its tie to glucose levels also suggests that eating regularly to maintain blood sugar levels in the brain may help refuel rundown willpower stores. This suggests, as many experts on dieting recommend, that dieters who aim to maintain willpower and cut calories should eat frequent small meals, rather than skipping meals. And last of all, the research on willpower depletion studies suggests that making a long list of New Year’s resolutions is not a good approach. Focusing on one goal at a time may be best. Once a good habit is in place, you no longer need to draw on your willpower to maintain the behavior. This gives you the opportunity to move on to the second goal on your list. Healthy habits can thus be established, become routine and will not require as much difficult decision-making. For more information on willpower, go to the American Psychological Association's website and look for the publication by Kirsten Weir, “What You Need to Know about Willpower, the Psychological Science of Self-control.” www.apahelpcenter.org Ron Breazeale, Ph.D. Author, Duct Tape Isn’t Enough www.reachinghome.com

In the face of Adversity: Poverty, Financial Decision-Making and Willpower

This is America. We’re all supposed to be able to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, right? Even if they don’t have any boots. Many in this country believe that the poor are poor because they lack the will to change their situation. So what role does willpower play in poverty and financial decision-making in general? Recent research on willpower depletion and impulse buying has suggested that poor financial decision-making may have much to do with willpower depletion. In one study, those who had previously exerted self-control in a lab exercise reported experiencing more temptation to buy and did purchase a larger number of items and spent a greater amount of money than participants who hadn’t performed the willpower draining task. Another study done by Princeton University doctoral candidate Dean Spears offered participants an opportunity to purchase a popular brand of body soap at a significantly discounted price. The soap was a good deal, but it represented a very difficult financial choice for individuals living in poverty. Before and after the soap was offered, the participants were asked to squeeze an exercise hand grip as a test of self-control strength. In his study, richer participants squeezed the hand grip for about the same length of time before and after the soap purchasing opportunity. The poor participants squeezed for a significantly shorter duration the second time around. He concluded that their willpower had been run down by their difficult decision-making. Spears in another study with a cross-section of American shoppers supported these findings. These findings suggest that it is not that poor people have less willpower than the rich, but that for people living in poverty every decision, even ones that most of us would assume are not difficult ones, such as buying a personal care product such as soap, requires the use of self-control and dips into what many researchers believe is a limited willpower pool, not just for the poor, but for everyone. More about this in the next blog. For more information on willpower and the studies that were discussed in this blog, go to the American Psychological Association. “What You Need to Know about Willpower, the Psychological Science of Self-control,” written by Kirsten Weir, www.apahelpcenter.org. Ron Breazeale, Ph.D. Author, Duct Tape Isn’t Enough www.reachinghome.com