Three straight days of colonic irrigations. Five straight days of eating nothing but watermelon. Eight straight days of consuming nothing but puréed carrots and chicken broth. Eleven straight days of juice cleansing. One hundred and eighty straight days of water, raw fruits and vegetables, and nothing else. I’ve done all of these things and many, many more that would leave a lot of people scratching their heads.
When you want to recover your health badly enough, you’re willing to try things. But anyone who’s followed a health recovery plan of any kind can tell you that at some point, you just say f#*k it. I’ve had enough. I’m burned out. This restrictive lifestyle is killing my social life, my work productivity and most importantly, my sanity. And you eat some forbidden food. And that first bite is like a taste of heaven. It tastes even better if you’re sharing it with friends. And suddenly, you feel like yourself again.
Until you go home, feel agonizingly sick and realize that you’ve traded long-term happiness for short-term indulgence. And then you beat yourself up over it and vow to do better tomorrow.
If this sounds like you, you’re not alone. Health recovery seekers everywhere, including myself, have been there. I promise you that much. Believe it or not, it’d be a whole lot weirder if this has never happened to you. In that case, I salute you as one of the rare few. But for the rest of us, this phenomenon is what’s known as willpower fatigue.
Willpower fatigue is the result of chronic stress, or in layman’s terms, feeling the need to constantly be “on.” This chronic stress triggers our fight or flight response, which is key to responding to situations of real danger.
But in our modern world of smartphones, work deadlines, peer pressures and other stressors, we remain perpetually in this state at a low level. Because of this, we pump out a hormone called cortisol on an ongoing basis.
While cortisol is an incredible and essential survival tool, overproduction of it has undesirable side effects.
It negatively impacts our blood sugar, which could lead to insulin resistance, and ultimately diabetes. It causes us to store belly fat. Think muffin-top. It messes with women’s cycles. It can lead to anxiety and depression. It can create an inflammatory environment in our gut, which can lead to a whole host of digestive and even non-digestive problems.
And it can exhaust our willpower – not just physically either. Chemically speaking, cortisol has the ability to take over the frontal cortex of your brain, which is the place where willpower comes from. It saps its capacity for willpower, and shifts focus on survival.
So the question becomes, how do you reduce stress enough to get your willpower to where it needs to be in order for you to not only accomplish your health goals, but simultaneously live your life?
4 Steps to Overcoming Overwhelm
Know your priorities and stick to them.
“No” is an incredibly powerful word. If you’re someone who feels badly saying no to your boss about taking on that extra work, or no to your friends about meeting for happy hour, then pat yourself on the back. You’re someone who cares greatly about the happiness of others. But be aware that pleasing others too often at the expense of your own happiness or sanity can be painfully detrimental. Knowing your priorities can really help to avoid the feeling of overwhelm. Personally, my priorities are:
My health, which includes food, exercise, sleep, relaxation, time spent in nature and travels.
My inner circle of loved ones, which includes my family and my absolute closest friends.
My livelihood, which directly impacts my ability to do the things that I both need and desire.
I have plenty of other things that I care about, but they fall outside of my absolute core priorities. If something falls outside of these core priorities, I have the ability to say no.
The most precious commodity that any of us have is time. If you force yourself to choose between preparing a gut-healing meal or meeting a work deadline, often times the easier solution is to put your health on the back burner for another day. Doing this repeatedly creates a routine that doesn’t account for the one thing that matters most to you. Avoid this by establishing your priorities, which will enable you to have ample time to do the things that matter most. This, in turn, will reduce stress and give you the willpower that you need to take your health to the level that you desire.
Get consistent, adequate, high-quality sleep.
Contrary to what your supposed iron-men friends tell you about needing no more than 3-4 hours of sleep a night, studies tell us that we need at the very least 6 hours of sleep to function. I’ll go even further and tell you that in my experience, and in the experiences of others with whom I’ve discussed the topic, you’ll want to get no less than 7 hours of sleep a night if your goal is to get healthy, and ideally 8 or more.
Sleep quality is just as important as sleep quantity. You want your sleep environment to be pitch-black. Get some good blackout blinds, they’ll make all the difference. You also want your room to be a comfortable temperature. It’s better to be slightly cool than slightly warm. And I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep all of your electronic gadgets at bay. Turn off your cell phone, your TV, your iPad and everything else. Blue light will sap your melatonin, which is your internal indicator that it’s time to get some sleep. So unless you want to be up all night, the blue light’s got to go.
So why exactly is sleep so important? Well, without proper sleep, your brain struggles to organize and store information, and your body flat-out struggles to heal. One of the key reasons for this brings us back to the cortisol hormone. Your cortisol levels fluctuate in a set rhythm, peaking in the early morning and bottoming out in the late evening. Without sleep, your cortisol levels don’t refresh for the next day and everything gets thrown out of whack.
Learning to take it easy can be exactly that – learning. But just like taking up a new language, you’ll need to make time for it. While you almost certainly recognize the health benefits of relaxation, you might not know why.
Relaxation can take your body from a state of stress response, which activates the sympathetic nervous system, to a state of restorative response, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Have you heard the expression “laughter is the best medicine?” It’s in part because activities such as laughter, meditation, yoga, hanging out with a close friend and other fun things are all relaxation techniques that have been proven to chemically help you heal. So the next time you guilt yourself for taking a break, take a step back and thank yourself for some much-needed relaxation therapy.
Choose your friends wisely.
You can’t choose your family, this much we know. But when it comes to your friends, you’re going to want to surround yourself with people who not only understand you, but encourage and support you. While you might feel like a burden to your friends because of your dietary restrictions, temporary inability to travel or because of other inconveniences, the real friends will always find a way to make you feel included and comfortable.
If, on the other hand, you surround yourself with people who guilt you for not being a whole lot of fun, or for always asking the waitress so many questions, how can you be yourself? How can you ever expect to heal in their presence? Not only are you unsupported during this challenging period in your life, but you’re being pressured into doing things that you know aren’t in your best interests. Think of these people like this – if you had absolutely no dietary restrictions or other high-maintenance baggage, they’d be fun to hang out with. But they wouldn’t be REAL friends. You don’t find out who your real friends are when you’re sitting behind a massive stack of chips. People’s real colors come out when you’re down to your last few bets. Take advantage of the opportunity to see who your real friends are and make your life easier by spending your time with them. They’re the ones that matter.
If it isn’t obvious to you by now I’ll spell it out – your willpower fatigue isn’t your fault. It’s the result of modern socially-constructed (and defective) norms. But it’s up to you to break away from these norms and go after the life that you want.
It starts with getting your priorities in order and respecting them. This alone will make all the difference in avoiding overwhelm and willpower fatigue, as well as getting you closer to your vision of healing, long-term wellness, and happiness.