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Is “Ego Fatigue” Sabotaging Your Willpower?

Ego fatigue doesn't have to prevent you from achieving your goals.

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For many people, just getting through the day is a monumental struggle. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, and ADHD must fight to control their impulses simply to function and stay on task through a day of work or school when they'd rather be home in bed or playing video games.

Having held it together all day, they then find those impulses even harder to control at the end of the day. Twenty years ago, a series of experiments demonstrated that impulse control is a finite resource that can be depleted—that suppressing impulses and feelings for some length of time can eventually make those impulses and feelings harder to resist. This phenomenon, known as “ego fatigue” or “ego depletion,” is recognized as a problem for those struggling with anxiety, depression, and ADHD as well as for people battling substance abuse and binge eating. The effect is similar to the depletion of physical and cognitive energy at the end of a long, busy day when all you want to do is relax and do nothing. Saying “no” to your urges all day makes it harder to control those urges in the evening when your store of control has been used up.

The ego and impulse control

According to Freud's three-part model of the human psyche, the id is the most basic part of the personality and fulfills our primal needs, the super-ego operates as our moral conscience, and the ego strikes a realistic balance between the two. It is the ego's job to apply the brakes to the id's urge to stare dreamily out the window rather than write a paper, fidget restlessly during a meeting, or lash out at the stranger who cuts in front of you at the bank. The ego controls our decisions about what to do and the actions driven by those decisions. The theory of ego fatigue is that making decisions and taking action takes mental energy and when that energy peters out, so does our ability to control our impulses.

Self-control is important to our daily functioning. Those with good self-control have better relationships and higher levels of achievement in all aspects of their lives. Poor self-control is associated with a higher incidence of social conflict and poor performance as well as a tendency to give in to detrimental impulses. It's logical to ask if we can build up our supply of willpower and self-control to counter the effects of ego depletion.

Replenishing your store of impulse control

A diagnosis of depression, an anxiety disorder, or ADHD must be made by a medical professional and treated with therapy or medication or both. But there are also lifestyle changes and self-help strategies that can support and enhance the benefits of therapy and improve your ability to stay in control:

A healthy diet—high in vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and low in fats and added sugar—can help maintain general and brain health. Avoid packaged, refined, and processed foods, especially those high in refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour. Some supplements—like curcumin, ashwagandha, and magnesium may also be beneficial.

Regular exercise, particularly moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain and stimulates the brain to maintain existing network connections and develop new ones.

Sleep is essential. Lack of sleep is detrimental to daytime functioning and is linked to a broad range of damaging physical and cognitive effects, including poor impulse control. You are more susceptible to bingeing, substance abuse, and bad habits when deprived of sleep. In fact, sleep and self-control create a cycle in which poor impulse control contributes to poor sleep habits by, for example, causing detrimental decision-making about sleep times and the sleep environment, while exhaustion from lack of sleep depletes the resources needed to exercise impulse control...and the cycle continues.

Coping strategies include anticipating and planning for situations in which impulse control will be needed and management of mood is warranted; stress management and relaxation techniques such as exercise, yoga, and meditation can help with managing anxiety, depression, impulse control from ADHD.

There are many factors that contribute to the depletion of your willpower and impulse control. But ego fatigue doesn't have to prevent you from achieving your goals. Understanding it, preparing for it, and preventing it can help boost and conserve your resources.

Alex Dimitriu, MD, is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine and the founder of the Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine Center.

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