Self Control vs Self Regulation

There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control.

Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses.

Self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of the strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery.

Both are like a muscle that gets strong with more use, or more coordinated with practice. But how they function is completely different.

If you look inside the brain of an individual who is highly aroused, you will see a limbic system lit up in bright shades of red, while there will be only a few splashes of blue in the prefrontal cortex.

What this is telling us is that the limbic system—the source of strong emotions and impulses—is driving the car, while the prefrontal cortex (PFC)—the home of our rational, reflective selves—is taking a back seat.

But calm the person down and the pattern will be reversed: a blue PFC will predominate and there will be a sparse scattering of red in the limbic system.

The latter provides us with a dramatic insight into what happens when the “limbic alarm” is turned off. The brain quickly shifts from what Julian Ford calls “survival mode” to “learning mode.”

The sea of blue in the prefrontal cortex is telling us that the systems used to think about one’s actions are fully up-and-running.

It might be tempting to see the shift from “survival brain” to “learning brain” in terms of the classic self-control paradigm. That is, the PFC is simply not “strong enough” to rein in the powerful impulses surging up from the limbic systems.

Certainly that’s the way we’ve thought about self-control for the past two-and-a-half millennia. It was Plato who first talked about the need for “Reason to rein in appetites and impulses.”

To this day, we continue to think about self-control in terms of exercising some sort of mental effort: an act of will to restrain yourself.

But read the writings of the leading experts and you’ll find them likening “self-control” to diverting the flow of cascading water, less like a damn.

Imagine someone overreacting to the simplest request, or lashing out at you for reasons you truly can’t understand. The brain has shifted into survival mode, the stress load was too great.

The limbic alarm is tripped by the slightest provocation, sending them repeatedly into bouts of fight-or-flight or freeze. This sets off a wave of changes: cardiovascular, of course, but neural as well. Large parts of his prefrontal cortex have powered down, giving free rein to his impulses and strong negative emotions.

His attention is focused on the search for threats, real or imaginary.

Fear-based thoughts run rampant.

The resources that he needs to embrace the positive stresses that drive growth is significantly reduced, as his energy is shunted to those processes that over the course of evolution were found to promote survival.

It all sounds rather daunting, but what it really comes down to is that we have to rethink some of our most time-honoured assumptions about how to help those dealing with alarm.

So much of the behavior modification advice that abounds today centers around how to teach individuals about the consequences of their actions and make these lessons stick; or how to build up a one’s self-control. And they should hear that information, just not when their brain is in survival mode.

But what neuroscience is telling us is that no one learns anything from lectures, however well-intentioned, while they’re in survival brain mode.

For all of them, you have to turn off their alarm in order for them to hear and absorb what you’re saying, much less think about consequences and have the capacity to choose a different action.

In other words, we are only able to develop and use “cognitive competencies” if our arousal has been reduced; and we accomplish this by identifying and reducing the stressors and soothing rather than badgering.

In other words, by practicing a foundational set of skills: not just how to deal with a deluge when it happens, but more importantly, how to prevent the deluge in the first place, by recognizing when they are becoming over-stressed and why, and what to do about it.

The implications of this new understanding of the critical importance of self-regulation are far-reaching. To begin with, it speaks to the importance of reframing behavior: distinguishing between misbehavior and stress behavior.

For that to be possible we have to know what are the signs of stress behavior.

This new understanding of the vital importance of self-regulation also tells us that we often talk (or worse) when we should be listening—with our eyes as much as our ears.

We look angry when we should be softening our eyes and our facial expression.

We add to the stress when we should be reducing it.

So much of what we see around us today seems inexplicable until we realize that we are dealing with the effects of excessive stress on limbic arousal and prefrontal functioning. We need to reduce the arousal in order to bring back those reflective capacities.

Then awareness, lesson learning and prevention can begin.

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