The excerpt below is from “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It” by Kelly McGonigal Ph.D. ISBN 1583334386 (ISBN13: 9781583334386).
The book is about what neuroscientists know about willpower and is choc full of practical advice based on that research, written in a very clear manner.
Different parts of the human brain are responsible for our impulses and self control. The part of the human brain responsible for self control is at its strongest when a person is not stressed. The excerpt below is for a simple breathing exercise that has been show to quickly relax a person and help shift control back to the part of the brain that does self control.
I haven’t seen those results yet, but this breathing exercise is amazingly effective for clearing your head. I’ve tried many other worthy breathing exercises over the years but this one wins with the combination for effectiveness, ease of learning, and how quickly you can get results:
You won’t find many quick fixes in this book, but there is one way to
immediately boost willpower: Slow your breathing down to four to six breaths per minute. That’s ten to fifteen seconds per breath—slower than you normally breathe, but not difficult with a little bit of practice and patience.
Slowing the breath down activates the prefrontal cortex and increases heart rate variability, which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique will make you feel calm, in control, and capable of handling cravings or challenges. It’s a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you’re staring down a cheesecake.
Start by timing yourself to see how many breaths you normally take in one minute.
Then begin to slow the breath down without holding your breath
(that will only increase stress). For most people, it’s easier to slow down the exhalation, so focus on exhaling slowly and completely (pursing your lips and imagining that you are exhaling through a straw in your mouth can help).
Exhaling fully will help you breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling.
If you don’t quite get down to four breaths a minute, don’t worry.
Heart rate variability steadily increases as your breathing rate drops below twelve per minute. Research shows that regular practice of this technique can make you more resilient to stress and build your willpower reserve.
One study found that a daily twenty-minute practice of slowed breathing increased heart rate variability and reduced cravings and depression among adults recovering from substance abuse and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Heart rate variability training programs (using similar breathing exercises) have also been used to improve self-control and decrease the stress of cops, stock traders, and customer service operators—three of the most stressful jobs on the planet. And because it takes only one to two minutes of breathing at this pace to boost your willpower reserve, it’s something you can do whenever you face a willpower challenge.