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Strengthening Your Self-Control

Smug meeting meditationUnderstanding how to maximize self-control of your emotions and behavior can decrease some of the emotional pain that emotionally sensitive people experience.

Not acting on impulse and thinking through how your actions in the short-term will affect your long term goals will decreae the suffering that you experience.

The good news is that some of the most effective strategies are everyday actions that are only surprising in terms of their effectivenss.

Ways to Strengthen Self-Control

Slowing Your Breath: Slowing your breathing to four to six breaths per minute will activate the prefrontal cortex and increase heart rate variability which helps shift the brain and body from a state of stress to self-control. When you are in stress mode, you are not able to think as clearly.

Your brain is in automatic survival mode, the need to do just what works in the moment. This is helpful in true emergencies but keeps us from seeing the big picture, our long-term goals. When the brain turns off the stress alerts, you have more access to the plan-ful behavior.

Meditation: Meditation improves attention, focus, impulse control and self awareness. Initial results can be seen within three hours and significant improvements with eleven hours of practice. McGonigal (2011) says that over time the brains of meditators have more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex as well as brain regions that are related to self-awareness. Practicing meditation over time will build your ability to stay aware and manage your impulses. Practicing mindfulness will also work.

Many people stop meditating because they are “bad” at doing it. Their minds are skipping from topic to topic.  Even when your meditation practice seems distracted, you are practicing bringing your mind back to a focused goal and that makes a difference in your ability to focus and concentrate when you aren’t meditating.

Sufficient Sleep: When you don’t get enough sleep, the prefrontal cortex develops “mild prefrontal dysfunction,” which is similar to mild intoxication–obviously not good for your self control. Being mildly but chronically sleep deprived increases your susceptibility to stress, craving and temptation.

Sleep deprivation diminishes the body’s ability to process glucose which is its main form of energy, and you feel exhausted. When desperate for energy you are likely to crave sweets or caffeine. But your brain and body still won’t get the energy it needs because it can’t process effectively. Self-control requires a lot of energy and so it suffers when you don’t have sufficient sleep.

Eat a Balanced diet:  If the body is fueled adequately with the nutrients it needs, self-control will be stronger.

Practice Self-Compassion:  Many people believe that being hard on yourself motivates you to stick to your goals. Turns out that is not true. Self-criticism is actually associated with less motivation and  less self-control. Self compassion is associated with  better self-control.

Structure:  Having a regular schedule to eat and sleep helps the body function at its best and that helps build self-control.  In addition, building in reminders of your goals that you see on a regular basis is helpful.

Reward Substitution:  When faced with needing self-control to do unpleasant tasks to get to an important long-term goal, using reward substitution may help. Give yourself an immediate reward for getting through each step toward the long-term goal. For example, if you want to stop biting your nails, give yourself a reward for each day you succeed.

Pros and Cons: Focus on what you want to do. If you want to stop yelling at people, then your goal would be to speak in a moderate voice tone regardless of your mood. Then make a list of the pros and cons of doing that. Then make a list of the pros and cons of not keeping your goal.

Keep pushing deeper and deeper to list all the important pros and cons. List both short term and long term consequences.  Then keep it with you and review it throughout the day and before any situation that you might be tempted to act impulsively (Linehan, 1993).

Replace the Behavior:  Take a close look at the benefits of the impulsive or destructive behavior. Replacing whatever positives you get from the behavior you want to replace will be important.

Exercise:  Sometimes it seems that physical exercise is the answer to everything. McGonigal (2011) says exercise reduces cravings, relieves stress and enhances the biology of self-control just like slowing your breath. Exercise reportedly enhances the speed of processing of the prefrontal cortex. which plays a large role in self-control.

In addition, the effects of exercise are immediate. Exercising outdoors is especially beneficial.  Five minutes of exercising in nature, even walking, has immediate effects on your mood and self-control.

Dan Ariely has some interesting insights on self-control in this youtube video.


Linehan, Marsha.  Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personaltiy Disorder. New York: Guilford Press, 1993.

McGonigal, Kelly. The Willpower Instinct:  How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters and What You Can Do to Get More of It. New York:  Avery, 2012.

photo credit: quinn.anyaCreative Commons License

Strengthening Your Self-Control

Karyn Hall, PhD

Karyn Hall, Ph.D. is the owner/director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Center in Houston, a DBT-Linehan Board of Certification, Certified Clinician, a RO DBT Approved Supervisor and Trainer and owner of, an online educational program. She is a trainer/consultant as well as a therapist and certified coach, author of The Emotionally Sensitive Person, SAVVY, Mindfulness Exercises for DBT Therapists, and co-author of The Power of Validation. Her podcast, The Emotionally Sensitive Person, is available on iTunes.

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APA Reference
Hall, K. (2012). Strengthening Your Self-Control. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 3, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Apr 2012
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