Does Self-discipline Make us Resilient?

Yes, but why?

I have studied research on the various resiliency factors, and the reasons why most of these factors increase resilience are pretty straight forward. It makes sense at first blush that having a good support system in the form of a loving family would help you get through challenges. It’s obvious that if you have a sense of humor and meditate and work out, that you will be better off when dealing with stress.

When I read Dr. Robert Brooks’ research stating that self-discipline is a vital component of a resilient mindset, I wondered “What is it about self-discipline that makes us more stress resilient?” The answer didn’t hit me right away.

As I read a little more of Dr. Brooks’ work I saw the connections with stress and lack of self control. If you are too impulsive or compulsive you will invite stress into your life. Typically impulsive people have trouble controlling appetites, and give in to temptations such as inappropriate sex, pornography addictions, over-eating, drugs, alcohol, losing temper, and on and on. Those are behaviors that cause stress. In addition they are usually behaviours that compromise our values, so we feel guilt and shame which only serves to magnify the stress.

So I figured that having self-discipline is not as much a characteristic that builds personal resilience as it is a characteristic that helps us avoid the stress in the first place.

However, as I studied a little more about the brain and how it works, I made some new connections. Generally speaking our pre-frontal cortex is our rational, reasoning and logical part of our brain, and our amygdala and the rest of our limbic system are the emotional and animalistic parts of our brain. The limbic system is responsible for our “fight or flight” response. When you give in to temptation by doing something that is pleasurable even though you know it is wrong, it is your limbic system winning out over your pre-frontal cortex. When you do something that is hard, like writing a presentation when it would be easier to watch TV, that’s your pre-frontal cortex winning out over your limbic system. But when you quit writing before you are done to go watch the latest episode of Modern Family just to hear Sofia Vergara’s accent, you guessed it, the limbic system is back in charge.

What does this have to do with resiliency? Worry, fear and anxiety are based in the limbic system. Most worries and fears are not rational. The pre-frontal cortex knows that flying is statistically safer than driving, yet the limbic system causes many people to be stressed every time they step on a plane. Which do you give more weight to, your pre-frontal cortex or limbic system?

People with a high level of self-discipline are people that would have a stronger pre-frontal cortex, and rely more on logic and reasoning. They would tend not to be influenced by irrational fears. Their rational brain more often than not would win out over the emotional brain. So now it makes more sense to me why people that are self-disciplined would be resistant to negative stress reactions.

Yes this is over simplifying a complex relationship between parts of the brain, but for us lay-people the generalization works. It works because we just need to know the basics so we can improve our odds in this constant battle in our mind.

Self-discipline is like a muscle. It will be built and strengthened over time as you practice resisting temptation, and are proactive with goals. It doesn’t happen over night, but with exercising your self-control it will grow. Another method is meditation. Research has shown that meditation increases self-discipline, and makes people less impulsive, and more likely to think through their problems instead of reacting emotionally.

As you reach higher levels of self-discipline you will avoid bringing a lot of stress into your life, and the stress that you can’t avoid won’t crush you.