, 18 tweets, 13 min read Read on Twitter
1/ Is willpower myth or muscle? Using eating & #dieting as an example, let’s discuss the science behind #willpower, when willpower fails, and what we can learn from all of this to help us break bad #habits. A long thread, but follow along to learn why willpower is really a myth.
2/ If you're a #primarycare provider trying to help patients lose weight, a #nutritionist trying to get someone to stick to a healthy #diet, or simply trying to eat better yourself: Do you ever feel frustrated, helpless or like a failure in changing #habits?
3/ Why is habit change so hard? Have we not come up with the perfect strategy? Do we simply need more #willpower (or a kick in the pants)?

For years you’ve been told that willpower is the 🔑 to breaking bad habits… but what if I told you that science says otherwise?
4/ Let’s start with an example: In the movie Chocolat, the mayor of a town in France gives up chocolate for Lent. The mayor makes it all the way to the day before Easter—but then gets extremely stressed, loses all self-control, and devours a TON of chocolate. #ChocolateOverload
5/ But he was perfect for 39 days straight! What happened?! Let’s take a closer look at willpower and how well it actually works:
In a study done by the @APA in 2012, respondents reported typical health-related goals:
6/ Nearly all (93%) of the people in the study made a #resolution to change their behavior in the next year, yet FEWER THAN 50% achieved or stuck with those health-related goals at follow-up. The biggest barriers: lack of #willpower and #stress.
7/ The most common anti-temptation strategies rely on #willpower (forcing, reminding, distracting, etc.) – just like the mayor in Chocolat. And just like in the movie, the study showed overall failure. The mayor could resist until he couldn’t. Willpower works, until it doesn’t.
8/ So when does #willpower stop working? Let’s look at the effects of stress. Patients in my addiction clinic all know the acronym HALT: Hungry Angry Lonely Tired. These feelings are all major stressors and when they surface, people are very vulnerable to #cravings and #relapse.
9/ No matter our #everydayaddictions or #habits, we’re all more likely to give in to temptation when we’re stressed. Stress is the #1 trigger for relapse to drug use, including #smoking. In my clinic, this is true for going off diet or relapse to binge eating too.
10/ Why? The part of the brain thought to be required for #willpower is the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—which is also the FIRST region that goes offline when we’re stressed. Dr. Amy Arnsten at Yale has led the field showing the underlying research. Read more: buff.ly/2CCIVGW
11/ Regardless of whether we’re stressed, our PFC can still undermine our willpower. You might be familiar with the white bear study: When we’re told not to think of a white bear, we think about it MORE. Read the original paper here: buff.ly/2CBokmq
12/ You can try this out yourself. Ready? Don’t think of the smell of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. How did that work out for you? #MyPFCIsBroken
13/ Now try to resist eating chocolate chip cookies for the rest of the day. Do the cravings go away? I’d guess not. Studies by Roy Baumeister’s lab found the more we resist, the more desires persist. Eventually we give in. See here: buff.ly/2BHNmyr
14/ So why not just try harder? A study found that college students who exerted more self-control were NOT better at achieving. Summary from @Vox: “not only were they not meeting their goals, they were exhausted from trying.” #Willpower is hard work! buff.ly/2ESvIbr
15/ Together these studies may explain why our PFC (& its well-intentioned willpower) fails us. If we try to suppress/resist our desires, they get us in the end. Especially when we’re stressed and even when we try harder. Science shows that willpower may be more myth than muscle.
16/ Why #willpower fails (a summary)
-Most people fail at health goals, reporting willpower failure
-Stress makes our brain’s willpower hub go offline
-PFC paradox: suppressing thoughts = more craving
-The more we resist temptation, the more it persists
-Willpower is exhausting
17/ Clinic tips: If you are struggling to help your patient/client lose weight, quit smoking, etc.
DON’T: Blame the victim. They’ll feel worse (and were using a well-meaning but flawed strategy).
DO: Give stress-reduction resources (e.g., mindfulness) to help keep the PFC online.
18/ Helpful resources:
-My website: buff.ly/2BJG1yE
-10-min @TEDTalks video on using curiosity to break bad habits: buff.ly/2Ggor7i
-@MindfulBrown @BrownUniversity: buff.ly/2Q4VP5h

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