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"It's the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it."Aristotle

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

A higher capacity for self-regulation is directly linked to healthier interpersonal relationships, more effective coping skills, and even superior performance. Leaders who have high levels of self-control are able to create safe and fair environments that bring forth the highest levels of performance - and keep the best talent around them for the long haul.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the associated uncertainty around employment, managing child-caring responsibilities, and work-from-home arrangements, has made it abundantly clear how important it is to manage our psychological well-being.

A higher capacity for self-regulation is directly linked to healthier interpersonal relationships, more effective coping skills, and even superior performance. Leaders who have high levels of self-control are able to create safe and fair environments that bring forth the highest levels of performance - and keep the best talent around them for the long haul.

We often assume that the ability to regulate and control our thoughts, emotions and behaviour is purely a mental phenomenon. But there is more to it. In this article, I explore the research around four factors that influence the capacity for self-regulation.

Sleep and emotional regulation

Research shows that the importance of sleep extends beyond the body and includes critical brain functions, such as memory function, emotion processing, and the removal of neurotoxins.

What happens in the case of sleep loss?

In the case of sleep deprivation, the amygdala, the seat of the brain’s fight-or-flight response, appears to shift into high gear, subsequently interfering with logical reasoning as well as impairing the release of certain neurochemicals that would normally calm us down. Instead, the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released which not only disrupt our cognisance, but also the ability to regulate our emotions. With sleep loss, the brain regresses to more primitive patterns of activity in which it is difficult to put emotional experiences into context and produce controlled appropriate responses. The emotional centres of the brain can be over 60 percent more reactive under conditions of sleep deprivation than with subjects who have obtained an optimal night of sleep of 7 to 9 hours.

Perception and mood changes

We are more likely to perceive neutral situations as negative and to focus on experiences that were negative, with leaves us with a skewed perspective when we are evaluating a situation or solving complex problems. We are also more likely to overreact, have negative mood swings and be short-tempered, which generally narrows our capacity to think clearly and objectively. Sleep loss does not only interfere with our own internal emotional regulation, but it interestingly enough also diminishes our ability to judge the emotions on other people’s faces. How can you apply these findings in your own life?

It is especially important to break the cycle in which poor sleep leads to increased levels of stress, and, heightened levels of stress lead to a further loss of sleep. We encourage our clients to engage in practices that assist them in getting the quality and quantity of ´sleep hours´ they need. By limiting ´blue light´ in the evenings (use apps as f.lux or blue-light-blocking glasses), switching to airplane mode and eliminating coffee after 3 PM, as well as adding a 10-minute nap (the biggest benefit in alertness and performance both immediately after and up to three hours later) or an extra 20 minutes to one’s sleep cycle.

Exercise and emotional regulation

Aerobic exercise

People who engage in a regimen of regular exercise improve many of their “executive functions”, the set of skills – such as response speed and working memory that allows us to focus despite any distractions, regulate our responses, and engage in appropriate behaviour based on the situational context. Moderate aerobic-type exercise also reduces stress, decreases anxiety, alleviates depression and enhances BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), a protein in the brain which is crucial for learning and adaptability. Other physical rituals that enhance self-regulation

Other physical training regimes that support self-regulation are the Nordic practice of sauna and swimming in cold water. This can improve emotional stability and provides superior immunity through enhanced production of dopamine and noradrenalin that keeps us motivated and alert. An alternative to the sauna would be taking daily cold showers or swimming in cold water.

How can you apply these findings in your own life?

I would recommend you engage in various forms of exercise that each has their specific positive influence on your health and performance. When we focus on increasing the capacity for self-regulation, aerobic exercise - 3 times a week for 20 minutes minimum - is an important building block to achieve that goal.

Mindfulness and emotional regulation There is ample research showing that mindfulness leads to reduced activity in the amygdala, and to increased activation in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a structure implicated in emotion regulation and sustained attention. Mindfulness seems to support a more reflective, less reactive mode of brain functioning.

Studies using neuroimaging techniques have revealed that meditation can improve activation and connectivity in brain areas related to self-regulation in as little as 5 days. Mindfulness training in general has been consistently demonstrated to promote self-regulated attention and emotion regulation. In fact, research has revealed a significant correlation between levels of mindfulness and self-report scores on the Difficulties in Emotion Regulation Scale (DERS), showing that higher scores on mindfulness reflect fewer difficulties with emotion regulation.

In our Leading at the Edge Bootcamps© at Lead4Agility we have our clients experience the basics of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) feels like. We explain the neural underpinnings and work with neurofeedback devices as, for example, Muse - an EEG device that passively senses your brain activity and translates it into the guiding sounds of weather to help you stay calm & focused - to support their practices.

Nutrition and self-regulation

The “cost” of emotional regulation related to healthy behaviour

When we need to regulate our emotions several times a day, it impairs our ability to restrain ourselves from eating unhealthy food and to comply with our nutritional plans. When we engage in a complex cognitive task it also impairs our self-regulation. When you are on a diet this increases the probability that you engage in unrestrained eating in comparison with people who for example only perform a simple cognitive task.

Self-control as a limited resource

Self-control is hard work. It takes serious effort to override impulses, emotions, and automatic responses. The researcher Roy Baumeister connected willpower with energy levels and suggested that our self-control erodes as the day goes on. Although there is some debate around the influence of blood glucose as an important part of the energy source of self-control, as Baumeister suggested, many of us have the experience that we have less willpower at the end of the day, especially when we have experienced several moments in which we had to manage emotionally challenging situations. Some laboratory studies of self-control showed that (a) acts of self-control deplete relatively large amounts of glucose (b) low levels of blood glucose after an initial self-control task predicted poor performance on a subsequent self-control task, and (c) initial acts of self-control negatively influenced performance on subsequent self-control tasks, but consuming a glucose drink eliminated these impairments. Self-control failures are more likely when glucose is low or cannot be mobilised effectively to the brain (i.e., when insulin is low or people are insulin insensitive). Restoring glucose to a sufficient level usually improves self-control. Several self-control behaviours fit this pattern, including focusing our attention, regulating our emotions, how we manage stress, and our capacity to act on impulse. How you can apply these findings in your life

When people are depleted, their automatic patterns rather than explicit attitudes predict how they will behave in general, and more specifically what food choices they will make. An interesting exception is a situation in which people know that their peers prefer healthier options. In that case they count on social cues to guide their behaviour. That is why it is so essential to work on healthy habits in a group setting and to include accountability partners in the process.

Another obvious recommendation is making sure that our clients have optimal levels of glucose during the day (by eating complex carbohydrates as snacks), that they stay hydrated, have short intervals of recovery (deep breathing or movement), and reframe from alcohol as much as possible during the workweek. Since alcohol reduces glucose throughout the brain and body it impairs many forms of self-control.

We apply these findings in our Leading at the Edge Bootcamps© and Executive Development programs. Our integrative high-performance leadership model includes foundational drivers which impact the successful development of meta-skills and in turn facilitate the cultivation of competencies.

I am looking forward to hearing about your experiences with these practices and how they have influenced your day-to-day performance at work. For more information, contact us at

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