You feel like you should be able to grit your teeth and just get through urges to use. Just go cold turkey and do it on your own. But, if you are like many people who struggle, you’ll need more than willpower to overcome addiction and get past cravings to maintain your sobriety. The surprising reason why? Willpower is most likely a limited and exhaustible resource.
What is ego depletion?
Ego depletion (also sometimes called cognitive depletion) refers to the process of your willpower being sapped throughout the day. Each time you struggle with a decision or try to cope with a difficult situation, you’ve tapped your reserves. Say you have a day that starts with a frustrating bus ride.
You get to work and you’re short-staffed, so you are under stress and pressure through your entire shift. There’s nowhere to eat in walking distance, so you cobble together an unsatisfying lunch with stuff from the vending machines.
By the time a friend calls you to come over and chill, you’re a wreck. And, even if you have every intention of just hanging out and enjoying each others’ company, if drugs or alcohol are present, your chances of holding out and not using are low.
Studies show that reduced willpower has a physiological basis. One theory that has a lot of support is that willpower-depleting activities cause your brain to use more glucose; when you have depleted the glucose in your system, the part of your brain associated with cognition and decision-making shows less activity.
In a study on dogs and obedience, those who had lower blood glucose levels had a harder time resisting temptation than those with higher blood glucose levels. A follow-up study on human test subjects found that nourishment can help restore ego and willpower.
Two groups of students were told to fast to lower their blood glucose levels. After testing, one group was allowed to drink sugar-sweetened lemonade while another was only permitted a sugar-free drink. Those who got a sugar-sweetened drink performed better on tests that included willpower than those who were left deprived.
What can you do to avoid ego depletion?
Sometimes, stress is unavoidable. But, you can reduce the levels of difficulty in your life with some planning and can also give yourself better tools to deal with ego-depleting situations.
A few things that can help:
- Get plenty of sleep. Sleep washes stress-related hormones from your brain. By making sure you get a full night’s sleep every night, you are in a better position to confront the stresses of the day.
- Eat regular, healthy meals. Your brain uses more nutrients when you are under pressure and exerting large amounts of self-control. Keep a snack with you if you can’t take a break for a full meal.
- Plan your day the night before. If the morning rush puts a lot of pressure on you, make your life easier by setting the coffee maker before bed and choosing the next day’s clothes.
- Avoid situations that will tap your willpower. Don’t go window-shopping when you can’t spend money. Avoid people who make it hard for you to be polite and cordial. By preserving your willpower, you can be more sure that it is there when you need it.
By learning essential coping tools, you can make it easier to resist using and build up a more stable life for yourself. Let us help you create the strong basis for a happier and healthier future.
- Fischer P, National Institutes of Health, “Ego depletion increases risk-taking” Sept 2012 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22931000
- Hagger MS National Institutes of Health, “Ego depletion and the strength model of self-control: a meta-analysis” July 2010 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20565167
- American Psychological Association “Is Willpower a Limited Resource?” https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/willpower-imited-resource.pdf