08/10/2013 13:05 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Control Your Urges: What's the Best Way?

Controlling our urges or cravings is not easy when we are being constantly being hijacked from all angles in our day to day lives, especially with the over abundance of food and food outlets.

There are various psychological techniques for exercising self-control in order to deal with all the temptations that face us on a daily basis be it food or any other vice. However they are temporary at best and will not solve your problems on a long term basis; that is achieved more with a change in key lifestyle factors.

What leaves us vulnerable to these daily temptations?

Many factors contribute to this vulnerability including; sleep deprivation, excess stress, excess alcohol consumption (drunkenness), anxiety and depression.

Why does this happen?

A small chunk of brain in the front of the head called the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for our conscious and rational thinking, including impulse control. When you are subjected to the aforementioned scenarios, the body is drained of energy, which the brain requires huge amounts of in order to be able to make the right choices; suffice to say our self-control or impulse control goes out the window. In essence the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain has temporarily been impaired, in turn robbing you of the ability to think rationally when it comes to your long term goals like weight loss or weight control.

Are there any exercises or techniques we can practice?

Although psychological techniques can be very limited in dealing with impulsive moments or urges e.g. to scoff that chocolate cake, there is a physiological or biological component to controlling these urges, which may prove more fruitful at least until you sort out the key lifestyle factors.

This component is something called heart rate variability, which measures the variation in the time interval between heartbeats; a measurement most people have never heard of, but one that provides an accurate look into the body's state of stress or calm. Heart rate variability is such a good indicator of self-control that you can use it to predict who will resist urges and who will cave in.

Recent studies [1] demonstrate that people with higher heart rate variability have an inner strength and show extra effort in working at and completing tasks even in the face of negativity, are better at ignoring distractions, delay rewards rather than seek immediate satisfaction and deal with the day to day stresses of modern living.

Many factors influence your willpower, including lifestyle factors and anything else that stresses your body or mind, which will interfere with self-control and in turn sabotage your ability to resist temptations and urges.

However focus meditation is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve the physical component of willpower, by increasing our heart rate variability. Anything else that you do to reduce stress and improve your lifestyle will improve your ability to resist temptations.

There are not many quick solutions to curb potentially destructive urges, but one way to immediately have an impact is to slow your breathing down to between four and six breaths per minute; that's ten to fifteen seconds per breath. Although this is more than you normally breathe, with a bit of practice and patience you will soon get the hang of it.

What Actually Happens?

Slowing the breath stimulates the pre-frontal cortex, increasing heart rate variability, which allows the brain and body to switch to self-control mode. A few minutes of this technique should make you feel calmer, more in control and capable of handling cravings and temptations or other situations requiring rational thought or self-control.

It's a good idea to practice slowing down your breath before you're staring at some chocolate cake or.. You could begin by timing yourself on the number of breaths you normally take in one minute, then start to practice by slowing your breaths down, but be mindful not to hold your breath as that will only induce stress. Focus on exhaling slowly and completely, which will help you breathe in more fully and deeply without struggling. If you can't quite manage four breaths per 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, in turn enhancing your self-control, lowering your propensity to act on urges and temptations. Therefore, when you face your food related willpower challenge, practice the technique for a few minutes to boost your resolve.

It may not be a magic bullet, but until we gain control over the key aspects of our lifestyles, it can serve as a short term tool or a useful adjunct.

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