The Power of Self-Control

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Self-control and mental health

Self-control is a funny old thing, but ties in very neatly to many things I find myself experiencing recently. (The topic is even more ironic seen as how I failed to post week two of #Write52’s post – which was this one.)

Self-control is something that can be achieved over time, and by no means is it something that you will get right every time. The beauty and the lessons we learn along the way are in the struggle we encounter.

Naturally, my experiences are tied into mental health (you’ll be happy to know if you read my previous post, that for now, I decided to stick to this topic) but self-control can be applied to almost any aspect of your life.

What is Self-Control?

Seems like an obvious answer, it is controlling your thoughts and behaviours. And whilst self-control is about controlling your emotions, thoughts, and behaviours, it also delves deeper into your psyche than you might think.

Self-control is centred in the pre-frontal cortex. Humans have larger pre-frontal cortexes than other mammals, which is why you don’t see dogs slowly enjoying their food. Instead, they guzzle it down because they aren’t aware of self-control.

If you think about it the ability to control your actions and feelings is a very useful technique. Planning and evaluating possible outcomes can help you prevent mistakes and avoid disastrous results. However, controlling your behaviours and emotions can also seem impossible at times.

Self-control can come in many forms; one example is if you’re on a diet. You know that if you have another cheat day then you won’t stay on top of your diet plan. But at the same time, you’ve had a rubbish day at work and want some comfort food.

So, you are met with a dilemma and you have two options:

  1. Ruin your diet and order a takeaway, or snack on chocolate. After all, it was a bad day.
  2. Stay strong and tell yourself you don’t need another cheat day. Distract yourself to get over the thoughts about eating food (that you don’t need).

There is a conflict between what you know you want to do (stick to the diet) and what you think you want to do (cheat on the diet).

If you chose option 1, then you probably will feel a mentality within you that says, “F**k it, let’s ditch the diet!”

If you chose option 2, then you might feel a little disheartened about not having the comfort food, but you will get over it and feel stronger for it.

Diets don’t work because you are stating that you want to change your behaviour all at once and this often sets you up for several falls and failures.

Instead, my understanding is that it is better to make little changes; taking out and introducing things slowly. For example, firstly cutting back on junk food and then introducing more exercise as time goes by. This enables you to feel more in power.

Mental Health and Self-Control

The Relationship Between Self-Control and Health study was conducted at the University of North Texas. It found that higher self-control was related to fewer mental and physical health symptoms and less avoidance coping. The data collected in the study suggested that lower self-control is associated with unhealthy coping strategies, which in turn is associated with worse mental health outcomes.

It’s a vicious cycle that many people get drawn into and stuck in. Although I have never sought a diagnosis, I am fully aware of the crippling demons that crawl into my head and the reasons for my actions. Which is why I tried to make a conscious effort to control how I think and how I react.

This past year I’ve been working on myself to try and change certain thought patterns and behaviours. I used to self-harm, something which I had done for over a decade, but I finally decided to take control and put a stop to it. I also struggle with mood swings, depression, and anxiety, all of which I have put under a microscope and have tried to come up with better coping mechanisms.

I’m not only working on my mental health but also my physical; I ditched the cigarettes almost 8 months ago. (Woo, go me!)

Similar to the diet example of self-control, I chose to make little changes and slowly adapt my behaviours and thoughts. It hasn’t, and still won’t, be an easy ride but I know it will be worth it.

There will be setbacks and to be honest, there already have been. But, an important thing to remember is that despite your failings or lack of self-control at times, you still need to keep trying and persevering. Don’t give up and roll over because you weren’t able to do something right away. Try and try again!

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