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Photo: RuthBlack/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Photo: RuthBlack/Getty Images/iStockphoto

5 science-backed ways nurses can work on willpower

Willpower is such a valuable tool for nurses that it's easy to start seeing it as something magical or a personality trait. But according to medical science, self-control is something you can tap into using straightforward techniques. Whether your goal is weight loss, establishing boundaries with toxic people or making it through a 12-hour shift when you're sleep-deprived, you can create or replenish your supply at will (pardon the pun).

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And figuring out how to tap into any available self-control strategies becomes more important by the day. Living in today's society presents more challenges to self-control than ever before, according to a report published in the February 2019 Psychological Science in the Public Interest.

"Temptations are arguably more readily available, more creatively engineered, and cheaper than any time in history," University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and study co-author Angela Duckworth told Science Daily. "Junk food gets tastier and cheaper every year. And then there's video games, social media, the list goes on. In parallel, there are public policy issues such as obesity, educational underachievement, and undersaving that result, in part, from failures of self-control."

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Here's how to apply self-control science to boost your willpower at home and on the job, even if you feel like you weren't born with that gene:

Recognize the many faces of willpower. Instead of only thinking of self-control when a vendor brings brownies to the hospital, get to know the many ways a capacity for self-control impacts a healthy lifestyle. "The benefits of willpower reach into almost every area of our lives, as it is defined simply as the ability to resist short-term gratification in pursuit of long-term goals or objectives. Each of us has something we'd like to change, so improving willpower will serve us across the board," noted Atlanta nutrition and eating psychology counselor Margaret Schwenke.

Yes, willpower comes under scrutiny most when you're looking for a different experience of health, weight, or lifestyle, added Schwenke, who specializes in emotional eating, willpower and weight-loss techniques. "It's especially critical in these areas that we develop our ability to resist short term indulgences in order to achieve our long-term goals."

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Quit thinking your willpower is doomed to fail. According to the American Psychological Association's annual Stress in America Survey, "survey participants regularly cite lack of willpower as the No. 1 reason for not following through with such changes." But the APA has an issue with that attitude, asserting, "every day, in one form or another, you exert willpower. You resist the urge to surf the web instead of finishing your expense report. You reach for a salad when you're craving a burger. You bite your tongue when you'd like to make a snide remark."

Understand that your self-control gets depleted. According to the APA, a "growing body of research shows that resisting repeated temptations takes a mental toll. Some experts liken willpower to a muscle that can get fatigued from overuse."

Interestingly enough, self-control fatigue is not related at all to being physically tired, according to a study from psychologist Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota. She found that people who had stayed up all night weren't any more likely to experience willpower-depletion than their peers who had slept a solid eight hours.

Instead, according to the APA, waning self-control is caused at a biological level. "Scientists at the University of Toronto found that people whose willpower was depleted by self-control tasks showed decreased activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, a brain region involved with cognition. When your willpower has been tested, your brain may actually function differently," the APA noted.

It added that "willpower-depleted individuals might literally be low on fuel...Some researchers have proposed that brain cells working hard to maintain self-control consume glucose faster than it can be replenished... Human subjects who exerted willpower in lab tasks had lower glucose levels than control subjects who weren't asked to draw on their self-control. Furthermore, restoring glucose appears to help reboot run-down willpower. One study, for example, found that drinking sugar-sweetened lemonade restored willpower strength in depleted individuals while drinking sugar-free lemonade did not."

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Change the things you can. Duckworth's study established that some of the best self-control strategies include altering a situation in a way that automatically gives you an incentive to exercise your willpower, or creates an obstacle to less-healthy decisions. Examples include "using apps that restrict our phone usage or keeping junk food out of the house," according to Science Daily.

Schwenke, who has also created willpower-enhancing modules her clients can use online suggests building self-control like you would any physical strength. "Willpower is like a muscle and we can build that muscle to create lasting change," she said. "While we may be tempted to rush in and make all the changes at once, the best approach is to start small with one thing that you feel you can easily continue. Often, I recommend a morning routine as a good place to start. In addition to the fact that it's one small thing you can do every day, it has a profound impact on how you feel for the rest of the day. I also find that people have an easier time adapting to it, because the rest of the world – emails, job, errands, daily life stuff – hasn't crept in yet."

Turn the power towards yourself. According to a study from University at Albany psychologist Mark Muraven and some colleagues, when something external is "making" you exert self-control, your reserves dwindle quickly. If you're driven by your own internalized goals instead of trying to please other people, your stores of willpower have far more staying power. 

Schwenke said nurses should view that bit of science as a call to use willpower for their own benefit. "For those of us that care for others, it's imperative that we take care of ourselves. We're no good to anyone if we aren't feeling rested and nourished with abundant energy," she said. "Try to see your own self-care as an opportunity to do your small part to take care of this one life you've been given. Whenever possible, surround yourself with books, community, relationships and resources that inspire you and remind you that your health and vitality is your first responsibility."

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