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We are in the midst of one of the most exciting and profound revolutions ever seen in our understanding of human functioning and development. As a result of striking advances in neuroscience, physiology and psychology, we are unravelling the complex interrelationship between the prefrontal cortical systems involved in reappraisal, inhibition, self-awareness, and social awareness, and the sub-cortical limbic system that is the source of strong impulses and emotions. In normal, non-stressful conditions the prefrontal cortex holds sway, but under heightened stress the limbic system becomes dominant.

The major implication of this discovery is that we have to rethink the longstanding assumption that “willpower,” whatever that is, holds the key to a successful and satisfying life. Not only does harping on willpower do little to help us battle our maddening impulses and temptations, or develop grit and self-discipline, but this can actually have the opposite effect. Rather, the secret to a successful and satisfying life lies in reducing the “urgency of the urge”: that is, in enhancing our ability to self-regulate.

Self-regulation, in its original, psychophysiological sense, refers to how well we manage stress. Every time we experience a stressor we have to burn a bit of energy to keep all our biological and psychological systems running smoothly. That was W.B. Cannon’s original definition of “stress,” and as Hans Selye showed, we definitely need a certain amount of stress in our lives to flourish.

The fact is that growth – personal as well as physical, emotional as well as neural — is driven by stress. But the stress load has to be healthy. When the stress is too great, recovery mechanisms in the parasympathetic nervous system are strained and lose their resilience. Tension mounts throughout the body and energy reserves are seriously depleted. The prefrontal “brakes” are released and our capacity for reflective and deliberative thinking is significantly compromised. Our capacity to resist a temptation is weakened and the limbic system, now unfettered, hijacks our actions and mood.

The signs of when this is happening are those very urges that according to the “willpower” way of thinking need to be controlled: overeating, impulsive behavior, binge-watching TV or frittering away the time you could have gone for a walk or a workout. “Try harder!” we think. But the science of “ego depletion” has shown us that the act of trying to inhibit strong cravings or intrusive thoughts and worries adds considerably to the drain on an already overtaxed autonomic nervous system. The more depleted we become, the harder it is to “suppress.”

Self-regulation turns this picture on its head. It teaches that strong impulses or intrusive thoughts and worries are critical signs that the prefrontal cortex is under the thrall of the limbic system. When this happens we experience what is called a “kindled alarm,” slipping into fight-or-flight at the slightest provocation, seeing the world, ourselves, and others in highly negative terms. We become prone to fearful or angry reactions, irritable or easily frustrated, driven to seek temporary relief.

So it’s essential that we learn how to manage stress: our own first, before we can help others we care about—our children and families, friends and co-workers— manage theirs. For this to be possible, we need to recognize when we, or our child, for instance, are becoming over-stressed; why; and most important of all, what to do about it. But all this is easier said than done.

There are several reasons why it is so difficult to manage stress. One is that we don’t recognize the signs of “stress-behavior” and confuse it with “weakness.” In “stress-behaviours” that are triggered by the limbic system, we have a limited capacity to act differently or exercise self-restraint. The prefrontal systems needed to think about what one is doing and refrain from acting on a negative impulse are the very systems constrained by the heightened stress-load.

Another is that we have only a partial understanding of what stress is and what the stressors are that engulf us. We think of stress primarily in terms of the pressures of modern life; but in Cannon’s terms, we need to think of the full range of stressors – biological and environmental as well as social and emotional. Especially important are the myriad stressors that we don’t recognize as such. A sugary treat, for example, is a way to self-soothe, but eat too much of this and the pancreas has to go into over-drive to keep the glucose levels in the bloodstream within a non-toxic range. These “hidden stressors” can exert a terrible toll on our nervous system without our fully realizing this until we’re confronted with some health problem, mental and/or physical. Heart disease, depression, obesity: they all fall under this category.

Then there’s the problem of how to reduce stressors once you recognize them. Ironically, one of the biggest challenges we face when learning how to manage our stress is simply knowing when we’re becoming overstressed: when we need to rest and recover. This kind of self-awareness seems to have been all but forgotten in the modern world, as we careen from stressor to stressor and then try to exercise some sort of internal “mental strength” to stop ourselves from spinning out of control. But it’s catecholamines and corticosteroids – adrenaline and cortisol – that keep us going, and too much in the blood stream has a wearing effect on the mind as well as the body.

Finally, there’s the matter of what to do once we realize that we’re dealing with a case of too much stress. The key here isn’t to try to escape or find some respite. It’s about managing our stress in a way that promotes restoration and resilience. The complicating factor here is that there is no universal “prescription” for stress-reduction: what works for one individual may not work for another. Indeed, what constitutes a “stressor” for one individual may not be for another, or may change from one moment to the next.

Understanding these principles of self-regulation completely changes what we think, feel, see, and do, and, every bit as important, what we don’t think, feel, see and do! This is the real secret to success: freeing ourselves from an outdated mindset and learning what it feels like to be calm, and truly enjoying being in this state.

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