Stress & Long-term Goals

An argument with your significant other or extra traffic during your morning commute could be impacting your long-term goals more than you know. A research study from the University of Zurich demonstrated that even acute stress sabotages efforts of self-control.

Lead author Silvia Maeir noted that self-control is sensitive to agitation at multiple neural pathways, and that optimal self-control requires a precise balance of input from various regions of the brain, rather than a simple on/off switch. She emphasized that this work is only the beginning of understanding the complexity of underlying mechanisms.

The studies participants, who were chosen specifically for their eating habits, were tasked with dunking their hand in ice water directly prior to making a series of 70 dietary choices.

What habits qualified them for such a task? Each participant reported as attempting to be physically active and restrictive with their food intake, but frequently consumed junk food (my kindred spirit)

Over a three hour period the participants ran through two more sets of food options, for a total of 210 choices. This method allowed the researchers to measure levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, at different times. For the final trial of each set participants were made to eat their selection as a part of the experiment.

After reviewing the results Maeir and her team found that stress may impair the brain’s ability to make decision through two distinct avenues,

  1. One that relates to the characteristics of the stimulus. In this case, taste and smell.
  2. The other linked to goal design. In this case, diet restrictions

These results, coupled with previous work done by Hariri et al, furthers the idea that both the amygdala and the ventral striatum (part of the brains reward system) may be linked to the influence of stimuli on valuation and choice. The amygdala is behind instant reactions and choices, while the ventral striatum helps negotiate risk, reward, and decision making.

Maeir’s work went beyond showing how different areas of the brain interact with self-control in relation to goals.

Measures of participants perceived stress level (PSL) indicated that larger differences in taste often led to self-control failure. And, as PSL rose, participants had a harder time selecting the healthiest of choices compared to their low PSL peers.

Several studies have reached the conclusion that acute stress draws attention to the here and now. Understandable as the evolution of stress primed it’s function as a reaction to immediate danger or threats. In these moments our goal should be the removal of stressors. Often this would require additional effort and time we don’t have. It’s no wonder we end up giving into instant gratification without time to pause and reflect.

Amygdala Hijack: How Anger Controls You

The amygdala is part of the limbic system, the control panel for emotions. It works like an alarm, signaling for threats but otherwise laying dormant. The amygdala is seen as a crucial piece of our evolution, without it we would have likely been wiped out by threats overtime.

We developed the ability to respond without thought because of our need for survival. Psychologists refer to this immediate response as fight, flight, or freeze. And while it’s intent is to keep us safe, sometimes wires are crossed and we’re set off without realizing.

Coined in 1996 by Goleman, the term describes an emotional response that is immediate, overwhelming, and uncharacteristic for the stimuli because it has triggered a significant emotional threat.[1] During a hijack people fly off the handle and have little to no control over their actions.

Today, threat’s, really just nuisances, are far different. We respond to passive aggressive emails, sit in traffic, and argue over dinner. Not life-threatening, but they are stressful, frustrating, and seemingly unending.

Unfortunately the amygdala hasn’t evolved as quickly as our problems. Daniel Goleman, the researcher behind the amygdala hijack, suggests that our brain hasn’t had a hardware upgrade in 100,000 years. Outdated doesn’t begin to describe our brains basis for accurate judgements.

Except for our sense of smell, any of our sensory factors can trigger a hijack through the thalamus. A stimuli is sent to the amygdala, to make a threat assessment, and to the cortex, where we are given time to think[2]. The amygdala can react several milliseconds before the cortex has time to formulate a response. If it finds a match to the stimuli the amygdala hijacks our rational brain. In these moments we can only react. We receive time to think only after the fact.

When our amygdala is activated our body is flushed with chemicals; adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine, which help our body react to danger. Adrenaline and norepinephrine help us think faster, increase our heart rate – pumping blood to our muscles, and increases gluten release –  fueling our movement[3].

As the amygdala activates the prefrontal cortex, our logical powerhouse, shuts down. We become narrow-minded and our ability to make decisions dissipates. Our memory becomes sluggish and it’s difficult to recall specifics. During a hijack these cognitive functions are useless. The brain is trying to remove us from the situation at any costs.

After the fact

As your body works to process the excess chemical boost it received, anywhere from half an hour to 4 as long as the stressor has passed, you’re likely to start processing just how foolish your reaction was.

Because these threats are often only perceived as such we feel regret or embarrassment. It can be difficult to make amends when you don’t even fully understand what happens. You’re often left trying to justify your response by other people’s behavior, they shouldn’t have said that, or their tone was disrespectful. In reality your lizard brain got the best of you.

Joseph E. Le Doux, whose work Goleman’s is, in part, based on, was positive we could learn to control the amygdala’s abrupt outbursts. ”Once your emotional system learns something, it seems you never let it go,” Dr. Le Doux said. ”What therapy does is teach you to control it. It teaches your cortex how to inhibit your amygdala. The propensity to act is suppressed, while your basic emotions about it may remain in a subdued form.’[4]

In the midst of a hijack we have no way of controlling our outbursts, the part of the brain in charge of soothing our psyche is all but shutdown. The only way to cope is to manage the aftermath or preempt the situation.

Diane Hamilton wrote an excellent article in the Harvard Business Review called, “Calming Your Brain During Conflict” She details how to approach a situation that may push you passed you tipping point. Ideally, she writes, “Mindfulness is the perfect awareness technique to employ when a conflict arises. It allows us to override the conditioned nervous system with conscious awareness.” While not every situation allows the time to practice mindfulness, doing so will drastically change the outcome.

Self-control, a tool for happiness

In 2014 a group of researchers, Wilhelm Hofmann, Maike Luhmann, Rachel R Fisher, Kathleen D Vohs. and Roy F. Baumeister, looked to answer a nuanced question: are people with high self-control happier than those who give into their impulses? They looked at happiness in the moment, affect happiness, and over time, life satisfaction, using a self-appraisal technique.

Trait self-control (TSC) is defined as, the ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals. Something we can all use a lot more of around the 1st of the year.

When you look at the long-term effects of low self-control you can start to see how giving into temptation, over time, can lead to some pretty big upsets in life. Unhealthy eating, lack of exercise, procrastination, chronic impulse buying, and academic failure don’t happen overnight. Temptation can eat away at our goals bit by bit. But, this doesn’t necessarily mean that high self-control is better.the-trouble-with-self-control

Media representations of people with high TSC rush from one task to the next. Unable to enjoy the moment and appreciate the world around them. The researchers cheekily named this subset, the “Puritan hypothesis” in regards to their “straightlaced killjoy” nature that likely helped to found one of the world’s greatest civilizations. That would be America, for those of you wondering.


At the other end of the high TSC spectrum we have those greater in momentary happiness due to the ability to control their emotions,
minimizing bad feelings and promoting positive ones, and managing to reduce or eliminate temptation, reducing guilt down the road. The total of this momentary happiness leads to higher life satisfaction.

Finally they assumed that high TSC could improve in-the-moment regulation of emotions and increase affect happiness. But these people would hold higher standards for themselves and expect more from life. So much so that they could never be satisfied.

A focus of the study was that of conflicting goals. Primarily vice-virtue conflict, a piece of cake or a bag of carrots, time spent writing a blog post or watching another episode of GoT. They also looked at goal conflicts. Goals that were weighed equally (meeting your partner for a one year anniversary or staying late to secure a promotion) to see if people with high TSC were better at managing difficult decisions.

The first study revolved around momentary happiness, life satisfaction, and self-control. These were measured through surveys (links in previous sentence).

I encourage you to spend the few minutes to take them. I did. And I’m happy to say I’m just above average in each.

The results showed that people with higher TSC reported higher subjective satisfaction with life and higher momentary happiness. This means the Puritan view on TSC is probably not true. And, that high TSC is related to positive emotion and subsequently a sense of satisfaction with life.

In the second study the focus shifted to desire-goal conflicts with the assumption that persons high in TSC would experience less conflict and have to exert less self-control.

Again, high TSC correlated with greater affect and life satisfaction. The paper suggests that high self-control facilitates momentary happiness by helping people behave in ways that reduce mental conflict and prevent emotional distress. While poor self-controllers fail at striking a balance, leading to undesired outcomes and lower life satisfaction.

The third study looked after the differences between desire-goal conflicts and similarly valued goals. As expected high TSC reigned supreme when focusing on temptations, but for equally weighed conflicts, strong self-controllers saw no significant improvement. The research group gave the following explanation,

“Self-control should be seen as a tool or resource, not a reason to act, making it more helpful in vice-virtue conflicts than conflicts between equally important outcomes. In other words, when choosing between spending time with your family or friends you need a reason to do one of the other rather than a tool to resist temptation.“

Self-control has been linked with numerous positive life aspects, from occupational success to desirable social behavior, and better physical and mental health. Which all help to contribute to positive life satisfaction. This research clearly indicates that the positive effects of self-control can be felt in the moment just as well.

People often search for the key to happiness and satisfaction in life. It’s possible that one trigger for happiness is resting in our own ability to snuff out temptation when it hurts us most and to give in only when we need to recharge. This approach helps us to live fully in every moment, without looking back in regret at poor choices with long-lasting impacts.

Forget your Passion. Find your Ikigai

If there’s one piece of career advice that pervades our generation its, “follow your passion.” Now this statement has a lot of merit, if you can find something that you’re passionate about you’re likely going to do it well, enjoy the time you spend doing it, and eventually master it, but there are a few major issues with advice so simple.

That’s where the ikigai comes in.

Ikigai is a Japanese word, really a concept in English, that loosely translates to, “your reason to get up in the morning” or “your purpose in life.”

In detail, your ikigai stands on four pillars that help to derive what it is you should do in life. Now, before we go on I should clarify something. When I say, forget your passion I mean the expression, “follow your passion”. Everyone needs passion in their life and your career is no different. In fact it’s one of the central pillars of ikigai.

tumblr_nwqb57x4br1s5u08mo1_1280Here, passion is defined as the crossroads between that which you love and that which you are good at. I think this definition is almost perfect, but I would suggest that your passions be composed of skills which you are driven to become good at.

It’s more common than ever that the hard skills you’ll need to do well in a job won’t even be around once you’ve finished your education. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to learn to grow into a set of skills that you find rewarding.

This brings me to another major point, the things you’re passionate about are going to change. Probably a lot more than you think.  Spending time trying to find your passion now isn’t a waste of time, but you need to realize that as you grow your interests do too, and not only that,they may fade away.

Alright, so passion’s change. Knowing that, shouldn’t I be able to plan for it, and still follow the advice? Nope, there are still a few more problems with such simple advice.

Chiefly, passions are hard to prioritize. Are you more passionate about sports or music? Neuroscience or biochemical engineering? The lists are endless. And finding a compelling argument to choose one over another based solely on what you “love more” right now may change in time.

Second, and perhaps more unfortunately you may not be very successful at it. Sportscasting, art, brain surgery, these professions all have high thresholds to entry. Spending time pursuing a career without the knowledge that you’ll do well puts you on shaky grounds and can lead to a huge upset in life.

Finally, it’s a self-centered ideal. What you take out of this world is worth so much less than what you leave. If your primary goal in life is to pursue your passion, you’ll likely miss out on contributing to the greater good and making an impact in the lives of others. This doesn’t just seem like the right thing to do, helping others is the right thing to do.

Whether, you’re just starting out on your path, or thinking of a career change, make sure you move in the right direction. Find an ikigai.

Will Fatigue

For the past couple of years social psychologist Roy Baumeister has clung to the idea that self-control is like a muscle. Even though others have tried and failed to replicate his results, digging into the underlying work is still worthwhile. His work has  contributed to our understanding of willpower and discipline.

The internet is rife with jokes about how a long day can destroy any idea of productivity. When we’re met with greater demands than expected; extra traffic, a new work assignment, we have a difficult time adjusting. After all, humans are creatures of habit and change takes work, no matter the circumstances.

To Baumeister and his cohort these changes often come with their own sets of choices and stressors. Take a greater workload, do we stay late tonight to ensure we have the work done, or hope we can stay focused throughout the next day? What trade-offs does this entail and are they worthwhile? No matter your decision you’ll be dealing with an increase workload and a higher demand for focus and self-control during that time. From this point of view, future decisions, with higher long-term payouts will be more difficult to choose.

Like any muscle prolonged use causes strain and the only way to build back up is rest or refuel.

Sleep is critical for any functioning adult and I’m inclined, after many sleepless nights in college, to believe it makes a huge impact on the decisions I make each day. The link between self-control and stress are becoming more clear and sleeps effect on stress are well researched. The depth of research around the benefits of sleep have me recommending it as almost a panacea for daily woes, setting goals is no different.

Refueling, however, is a bit trickier. Initial research from Baumeister showed that blood glucose or sugar, determined your ability to stay in control. This has a glaring issue for one of America’s biggest challenges, obesity. How is any individual expected to lose weight while dropping sugar from their diet, something they’ve likely become addicted to. Thankfully this bit of the thesis has been put to rest.

More likely our brains respond to rewards as a motivational tool, helping us complete further tasks. Research is still well underway in this area, and may be glossed over in time. In layman’s terms meting out a positive in response to a negative sounds like a worthwhile route to managing self-control.

Will fatigue is seen as especially draining when we’re trying to change or cut a bad habit. Working against what was once a rewarding behavior requires serious mental fortitude. It’s no wonder goals set every new year’s eve are so rarely met.  

My sweet tooth is a real drawback towards dieting, and every office I’ve ever worked in has a candy bowl. After a long day it’s no surprise to see me with a piece of chocolate or three. Only recently have I looked into curbing this behavior.

So far, adjusting my sleep schedule hasn’t done a thing for my eating habits, but it was fantastic for my attitude and timeliness each morning.

Since, keeping my blood sugar up is redundant (I’d just eat the candy) and essentially disproved as a method my options seemed limited.

Thankfully, I found work by dietitians and other self-control researchers that worked better for me, indulging.

That’s right, to quit eating, I started eating. An oxymoron? Entirely. Successful? Even more so.

Of course I don’t eat junk food, and I’ve made sure I don’t have to work for the snacks I do allow myself. Instead of candy I munch on sunflower seeds and broccoli. To stave off flavor boredom I make my own seeds with whatever seasonings I have in the cupboard and I’m no slouch on the salad dressing (but do stick to healthy oils and vinaigrette’s!)

So, if you’re feeling out of touch with your goals, experiment. Shake things up a bit and try new approaches to old ideas. At the worst, you can feel confident in knowing that drowning yourself in chocolate syrup really isn’t going to help, even if it’s oh so good.