Self-Control is the mastery of our desires. What we desire, long for, expect, or demand can define our reality unless kept in check. Other terms historically associated with self-control are continence or temperance. They all imply moderation and self-restraint.
The Habit of Self Control
The habit of self-control might be seen as organized, controlled, or regimented. The habit of being controlled or regimented does not generally bring a picture of joy to the mind.
Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline is an excellent book that helps dispel the myth that a disciplined life is without joy. In his book he elaborates classical spiritual disciplines such as prayer, study, meditation, fasting and simplicity and how our commitment to them brings us more life rather than less. Creating discipline in our life helps open doors. It helps bring freshness. Like crawling into a bed with fresh sheets, it can feel cozy and delightful. Where there is discipline, the door can be opened to wonder, awe and an opportunity to be lost in the moment. If we are overwhelmed by all the things in our lives or feel disorganized, then there will be no room to see a larger perspective. Habits that build discipline and structure can be seen as joyful in themselves. The more proficient we become at habits that help us gain self-control the easier and easier they will become until they become a part of us.
The Neuroscience of Self-Control
Neurons that fire together wire together. The more we do something the stronger the habit becomes. Habit formation is partly engrained in an area of the brain called the basal ganglia. The basal ganglia get strengthened as habits get more engrained so that habits become easier and more automatic. A major component of the basal ganglia is the nucleus accumbens. The nucleus accumbens releases dopamine which is central in our reward system.
According to some neuroscientists “about 80 percent of the neural instructions for behavior are recorded in implicit memory, outside our conscious awareness.”[i] Neurologically habits work in a loop that contains a cue, routine, and reward.[ii] What makes up our habits is often outside of our conscious awareness. Isolating the cue, routine and reward of a habit can help us see why we do the things we do. Often there is a trigger that sends our minds into automatic mode. Imagine a commercial of an ice-cold beverage or a mouth-watering sandwich. Those are powerful cues that impel us to act. Our routines can be emotional, physical or psychological. It could be a thought pattern or something like going to the refrigerator late at night. The reward is something that your brain uses to remember this pattern even without thinking. Our memories are encoded with emotional content that will produce real feelings of euphoria or disgust. When you isolate the reward, it can help to change the routine. If the reward of your routine is to feel connection, perhaps spending time with family is a better routine than watching the news for hours per day.
Perhaps more than any other, the habit of regular exercise is one of the best in forming new neural pathways. It increases blood-flow to the brain. Exercise improves cognition. It reduces anxiety. It boosts immune function. It can increase the level of GABA which can suppress depression. Aside from physical exercise, if we exercise all of the habits that form fruits of the Spirit reviewed in this book, then we can gain self-control in our lives. We can be re-membered. We can re-member our body to be a temple of the Holy Spirit. Through God’s help and prayer we can be transformed.
But we must be gentle with ourselves. Sometimes no matter how much effort we exert, it is not enough. We can reach out for the help of others. If not friends and family, a trusted counselor can help us through whatever darkness we face. It is not helpful to judge ourselves or others if we cannot succeed. Sometimes the help of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication can make all the difference. Our brains are organs like any other. Sometimes they need medicine to help them function better. Each of us has organs that will not function perfectly at some point in our lives. We can be gentle with ourselves and others, knowing that medication might be our very best option to help make the progress we need.
The Neuroscience of Volatility
Volatility is generally a tendency for quick or unpredictable change for the worse.
Lack of sleep leads to agitation. Not having proper nutrition leads to an inability to think. If the habit of our mind is to ruminate on past mistakes or future anxiety, then we will be like a wave tossed on the ocean. If we allow fear or aggression to consume us, then these habits will have power over us. They will possess us. If we do not resist our fear and anger, the amygdala might get structured to wire our brains to perceive constant threat and compel us to fight. Prolonged fear and anxiety will damage structures like the hippocampus and anterior cingulate that help stop the stress response and draw us toward love. Stress, along with a bad diet and inactivity, can also lead to prediabetes. According to the CDC, approximately 84 million American adults have prediabetes. “Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas that acts like a key to let blood sugar into cells for use as energy. If you have prediabetes, the cells in your body don’t respond normally to insulin. Your pancreas makes more insulin to try to get cells to respond.”[iii] Over time your body just can’t keep up. Through stress, inactivity and poor diet, we can develop prediabetes. Prediabetes leads to type 2 diabetes. Diabetes can be very life threatening or debilitating.
Through healthy boundaries we can stay healthy. Through prayer and meditation, we can change our default mode network. We do not have to be governed by fear and anxiety. Our body and mind can be strengthened. Living by God’s laws helps break us free from the volatility in the world. What is most current in the news cycle, societal sins and prejudices do not have to be how we view the world.
“Habit, if not resisted, soon becomes necessity.” ~ Saint Augustine
Strengthening the Habit of Self Control
Three essential ways of mastering our bodies and minds are through proper nutrition, sleep and exercise.
Nutrition and Hydration
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine determined that an adequate daily fluid intake is about 15.5 cups for men or about 11.5 cups a day for women.[iv] This covers fluid from water, beverages or food. About 20% of fluids will come from foods. An easier metric that is commonly sited is to drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water a day. One of the more common causes of headaches is dehydration. The simple habit of hydrating can mean of world of difference in your life.
When it comes to nutrition, eating well is not simply about healthy balanced meals. It is also about having a right relationship with food. In her poem “Rice” Mary Oliver brings the food to life: “I don’t want you just to sit down at the table. I don’t want you just to eat, and be content. I want you to walk out into the fields, where the water is shining and the rice has risen.”[v] In every bite of food there are thousands of hours of nourishment. From the hours it takes to plant, harvest, transport, prepare, package and deliver food to the local market there is love and care in our food. To eat a salad might put together produce from several different countries. How did the sun kiss each vegetable over time? What rains and winds swept over the kernels of corn? We can enter into the blessing of our nourishment by appreciating how intricately beautiful and complex it is.
Are you eating when you feel hungry or eating because of unhealthy cravings? The hormone leptin helps decrease your appetite. It is produced by fat cells. Becoming obese can be the result of building up a resistance to leptin. If we are not intentional about our eating then it can become unhealthy and based on mindless cravings. The hormone ghrelin helps increase appetite and you can feel it when you’re hungry.[vi] If we habitually build up resistance to what our body is naturally telling us, it can be tragic.
Research has also show that gut bacteria can also create cravings in us. Gut bacteria can create cravings until they are given the nutrients they desire. Eating yoghurt and staying away from too much sugar are excellent tools in controlling gut bacteria. Another way of gaining control over your weight is to pay attention to the feeling of hunger rather than to eat at a certain time simply because it is “lunchtime”.
Once we are able to relax our parasympathetic nervous system can start storing energy in the brain. Also, in a study by Maiken Nedrgaard from the University of Rochester found that when we are sleeping, the glia open up and allow for toxic and waste byproducts to be removed from the brain.[vii] They are discharged through the cerebral spinal fluid. In the same study it was found this channel that removes waste byproducts from the brain is ten times more active during sleep than during waking hours.[viii]
Sleep deprivation has also been used as a form of torture. Anyone who has trouble sleeping might understand this a bit. Some studies have found that each hour of sleep lost per night is equal to having an alcoholic beverage. Considering that we spend about a third of our life in sleep, it is vital that we are intentional about it.
Exercise helps produce better blood circulation to the brain, builds a stronger heart, a stronger body, and makes you more resilient. Spread out over each week you need at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of a combination of moderate and vigorous activity. Exercise will increase the number of years in your life. You will also increase your quality of life. Exercise will also help you develop more mitochondria. Your mitochondria are what help you convert carbs, fat, and protein into energy. Studies have shown that after 6-8 weeks, you can increase your mitochondria by up to 50 percent.[ix]
Truly pages and pages could be written about the importance of exercise. Our body needs to be fit and strong to more easily function as a temple. Exercise helps us connect to understanding and appreciating the limits of our body. It helps us push and expand those limits. It builds confidence and vigor that strengthen our mental and spiritual vigor. It gives us life.
There are so many resources for exercise. Yoga, walking, and physical therapy are just a few. Having a partner or group to exercise with will also help you commit to it and find joy through it.
The Habit of Habit Formation
Forming or breaking habits can be extremely hard. There are some excellent tools that can make it easier. Below are five that I’ve found to be very helpful:
- Start Small: Many people give up on forming habits because they get discouraged. If you want to meditate every day, try meditating for just three minutes. If you tell yourself you want to meditate for 30 minutes per day and then give up when it’s too hard, it’s much better to start small. Then you can build your way up to your goal.
- Isolate the Reward: Neurologically habits work in a loop structure, containing a cue, routine and reward. If you are watching traumatic news, it can help to take a step back and ask why. If the reward is a sense of connection, you can find that reward better with friends, family and community more than watching the news. If you can label the reward, you can change your routine to better reward what you are really looking for rather than something damaging. If you take a break to smoke a cigarette, perhaps the reward is more truly to connect with friends and have time away from stress. Isolate the reward and you can change the routine.
- Delay: If your goal is to eat healthier or stop smoking, intentionally delaying your bad habit can help. If you can delay having a cigarette for five minutes or delay eating a bag of chips, then you can probably delay it ten minutes. You can build up to not doing the habit at all.
- Cues: Are a way of helping you remember to do your habit. If you want to go to the gym in the morning, you can cue yourself by having your gym clothes all packed and ready the night before. Any small thing that can make doing the habit just a little easier might make the difference to help the habit stick.
- Track: There is quite a bit of research that shows that when habits are tracked, they are more successful. Taking the time to look at what you do throughout the day or week can be very enlightening. The Daily Examen reflection in chapter 9 will help you claim and identify how the fruit of the Spirit are working in you or not working in you. Just as in Nehemiah’s time when the temple walls were able to be reconstructed, so too can we reconstruct the temple of our bodies to make and be lasting change. After you have practiced new habits for months or even years it can be very reassuring to look back and track how much progress you have made.
[i]Linda Graham, Bouncing Back, (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2013), 36.
[iii]“Prediabetes: Your Chance to Prevent Type 2 Diabetes,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed August 21, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/basics/prediabetes.html.
[iv]“Report Sets Dietary Intake Levels for Water, Salt, and Potassium
To Maintain Health and Reduce Chronic Disease Risk,” The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, accessed January 2, 2019, http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=10925.
[v]Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, (Boston: Beacon, 1992), 38.
[vi]“Your Hunger Hormones,” WebMD, accessed December 5, 2018, https://www.webmd.com/diet/features/your-hunger-hormones#1
[vii]“Brain May Flush Out Toxins During Sleep,” National Institutes of Health, accessed December 7, 2018, https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/brain-may-flush-out-toxins-during-sleep.
[viii]Norman Doidge, The Brain’s Way of Healing, (New York: Penguin, 2015), 112.
[ix]“What Happens To Your Body When You Start Exercising Regularly,” accessed June 10, 2020, www. youtube.com/watch?v=rBUjOY12gJA