Willpower in Moments of Stress, Visual Reminders, Breathing Less
🤸♀️ Stretch 55
I’m back with a couple of insight-gems from the book The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, plus an essay on why we should breathe less.
🤸♀️ IN THIS WEEK'S STRETCH:
Stress-relief strategies. The neurochemical impact of the ones that work and the ones that don’t.
Visual reminders. How to remind your stressed-out, dopamine-driven self about what truly makes you feel better.
Breathe less. Why overbreathing makes it harder for your brain to function optimally.
😰 GOOD VS. NOT-SO-GOOD STRESS-RELIEF STRATEGIES
“We are not the same person across the different hours of the day, at least not neurochemically.”—Andrew Huberman
I turn into a different person when I’m stressed and tired.
All my plans and good intentions… out the window! Suddenly, they’re not important anymore, at least not today. I’ll get back on track tomorrow. Whatever!
Let’s take a look at what’s happening in my brain in that moment:
Stress triggers the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, preparing my body for a "fight or flight" response.
These hormones tickle my brain's reward center, making my dopamine neurons more excitable.
That makes me more sensitive to whatever substance (Nacho Cheese Doritos) or activity (zoning out while watching Sex Education) that my brain associates with the promise of reward.
Memes—definitely a healthy stress-relief strategy. (The Internet is a weird but amazing place.)
My brain wants to make me feel better so it turns to what it knows will release the most dopamine.
That will vary from person to person, but overall, I think we can all guess which activities tend to activate the brain’s reward system the most, promising immediate relief and happiness:
Eating, drinking, shopping, Netflix, social media.
The problem is, as we’ve learned in an earlier chapter:
The promise of happiness ≠ happiness.
A smarter approach would be to turn to strategies that actually deliver on the promise of happiness. Things like exercising, playing sports, meditating, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, dancing, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, and so on.
Rather than releasing dopamine and relying on an empty promise, these strategies boost mood-enhancing brain chemicals like serotonin and GABA, as well as the feel-good hormone oxytocin. They also help deactivate the brain’s stress response and lower stress hormone levels, triggering a relaxation response.
So why don’t we automatically turn to those healthier options?
Because in the heat of the moment, we forget about them.
They’re not as exciting as the quick dopamine boosters, and we consistently underestimate how good they’ll make us feel.
So how can you remind your stressed-out, dopamine-driven brain about what really makes you feel better?
🗒 VISUAL REMINDERS
I have a note on my phone where I keep track of my runs. At the top of the note are some bullet-point reminders for my future stressed-out self.
I do that because as soon as I feel even slightly tired or stressed, my brain conveniently forgets how good it feels to go for a run. All it wants to do is order food and lie on the couch. In that moment, I genuinely believe that’s what I need, despite countless past experiences where I instantly regretted not going for a run.
I’m a bit embarrassed to share this screenshot (unedited!). I feel like a weirdo to have a note like this. To need a note like this.
But hey, writing this newsletter and sharing my thoughts is in large part an attempt to be more open and vulnerable about what’s going on in my head.
Plus, I read in The Willpower Instinct that creating reminders like this isn’t so unusual. If anything, it’s a clever willpower tactic!
McGonigal shares another example of a woman who sent a voice memo to herself after a yoga class, to describe how refreshed, relaxed and good she felt. Then whenever she felt tempted to skip yoga, she’d play back the memo, knowing she could not trust her impulses when she was stressed.
Numerous studies show that even the smallest of cues can help nudge us to stay engaged and build positive momentum towards our long-term goals.
So where can you leave a reminder for yourself? A note on your phone, a voice-memo, a post-it on your fridge. Describe in detail how you feel after a “fake” stress-relief activity and a “real” stress-relief activity.
The next challenge, of course, is remembering to look at your note or listen to your voice memo when stress hits.
What’s worked for me is pausing for a few seconds. Observing my thoughts and focusing on my physical sensations. Acknowledging what's happening without trying to change it immediately.
I’ve noticed that when I take those few seconds to detach from the impulse, something in my brain will remind me of my better strategies.
As for how to remember to take that pause? Haha, oh man, human-ing is such a trip.
🫁 BREATHE LESS
One of the best habits to develop when it comes to willpower and managing our brains is to breathe less. (Stay with me.)
I’ve written before about the benefits of slow breathing for self-control. Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability. This helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to one of self-control.
But there’s another fascinating reason. I go into detail in the article but in summary:
Overbreathing (which most of us seem to do) disrupts the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your system.
Low levels of carbon dioxide affect how efficiently oxygen is delivered to your brain, heart and other tissues and cells in your body.
This is especially problematic for your brain. At rest, that 3-pound electrified pâté is the most energy-consuming organ in your body. Even a brief lack of oxygen can hamper brain function, making it hyper-excitable. This can cause feelings of anxiety, making it hard to focus and make decisions.
Learning how to breathe less by slowing down and deepening your breathing is a powerful way to calm your nervous system, steady your mind and think rationally instead of impulsively.
More on that, plus some tips on how to do this, in the essay: