The Double-Edged Sword of Self-Control

Self-control can backfire by creating wear and tear at an epigenetic level.

Posted Jul 15, 2015

Pixabay/Public Domain
Source: Pixabay/Public Domain

A new study from Northwestern University reports that children from low-socioeconomic status (SES) families may pay a hidden price for exercising the self-control and willpower needed to succeed academically and socially. 

In an unexpected twist, the researchers found that for low-SES youth, practicing self-control was a “double-edged sword” with benefits and detriments. On the one hand, self-control facilitated academic success and psychosocial adjustment. On the flip side, the internal pressure of exerting self-control was found to undermine physical health by creating wear and tear at the epigenetic level.

The July 2015 study, "Self-Control Forecasts Better Psychosocial Outcomes but Faster Epigenetic Aging in low-SES Youth," was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

For this study, the researchers obtained DNA samples from participants and measured the samples for epigenetic aging using a biomarker that reflects the disparity between biological and chronological aging.

The researchers focused on a group of approximately 300 rural African-American teenagers making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. They found that those adolescents who have high levels of self-control, or the ability to focus on long-term goals over more immediate ones, fare better on a variety of psychological outcomes as young adults.

In a press release, lead author Gregory E. Miller, professor of psychology in Northwestern's Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences said, 

We find that the psychologically successful adolescents—those with high self-control—have cells that are biologically old, relative to their chronological age. In other words, there seems to be an underlying biological cost to the self-control and the success it enables. This is most evident in the youth from the lowest-income families.

Self-Control May Take an Epigenetic Toll

Wikimedia/Creative Commons
Source: Wikimedia/Creative Commons

Epigenetics”  is the study of connections between a person's social environment and his or her well-being. Unlike changes to the DNA sequence of regular genetics, the changes in gene expression through epigenetics have other causes. Shortening telomere length is one epigenetic biomarker for environmental stress linked to low-SES.

Every chromosome in the human body has two protective caps on the end known as telomeres. As telomeres become shorter, their structural integrity weakens, which causes cells to age faster and die younger.

Willpower is a depletable resource that can trigger the release of cortisol and other stress hormones. The researchers looked at such factors as stress and obesity as possible causes for the epigenetic changes in low-SES health status. 

A January 2015 study found that four out of every ten American children live in low-income families. There are persistent socioeconomic disparities in many aspects of child development. Socioeconomic stratification and poverty are a huge problem in America with high consequences.

In comparison to their more affluent peers, children of low socioeconomic status generally complete fewer years of education, have a higher prevalence of health problems, and are convicted of more criminal offenses. 

Some children are able to overcome the odds, but this new research shows that the self-control to do so may take a hidden physical toll. The study suggests that relentlessly pursuing achievement can feel Sysophian when the deck isn't stacked in your favor or institutionalized forces like racism and discrimination impede progress towards achieving personal goals.

"As disadvantaged youth strive for favorable life outcomes, they have substantial barriers to overcome and competing demands to balance, including resource-deprived schools, family obligations and managing social identity threats. These challenges are particularly salient for African-Americans," the authors said in a press release.

Epigenetics and the Grit Required to Overcome Socioeconomic Stratification 

The researchers found that for high-SES youth, having self-control was linked to slower epigenetic aging. Among low-SES youth, self-control was linked to lower rates of depressive symptoms, substance use, aggressive behavior, and internalizing problems but faster epigenetic aging.

​The researchers believe the patterns of accelerated aging at an epigenetic level suggest that for low-SES youth, resilience may only be a “skin-deep” phenomenon.

The external appearance of success or "keeping up with the Joneses" may be masking the underlying stress required to overcome societal obstacles. The reseachers hope that identifying the double-edged sword of self-control might shift traditional ideas about resilience. These findings could also have practical implications for interventions aimed at minimizing social and racial disparity.

Conclusion: Resilience Isn't Just About Mental Toughness

This recent study shows that among low-SES youth self-control was linked to better psychosocial outcomes, including less depression, substance use, and aggresion. However, having self-control also forecasted more rapid immune cell aging. These findings highlight the potential paradoxes of resilience and grit. 

One of my favorite lifetime mantras is a quotation by Maya Angelou, "The quality of strength lined with tenderness is an unbeatable combination." As a gay teen, I learned that having grit and resilience wasn't just about mental toughness.  

Comparing my experience as a gay teen to low-SES youth might seem like comparing apples and oranges.... However, the self-control it took for me to man up and never look like a sissy created a neverending state of free floating anxiety and stress as a teenager. I'm sure that if my DNA had been tested at the time I would've had all the biomarkers of epigenetic wear and tear. 

As a teenager, I realized that if I bottled up my emotions and never allowed myself to admit to my vulnerability I would implode. Exercising what seemed like self-control created a pressure cooker inside of me. Coming out was like a steam valve that released all the stress and shame I had internalized to the point of self-destruction.  

Personally, talk therapy and running was a cathartic combination that allowed me to process the homophobia and marginilazation I experienced as I was growing up. Allowing myself to admit to my vulnerability in therapy and then go for a long run made me feel stronger and less stressed at a psychological and cellular level.

As an ultraendurance athlete, I learned that being "tougher than the rest" or relentlessly practicing strict self-control always backfired. Part of my winning formula as an athlete was the ability create a state of flow and superfluidity by letting go of self-control. 

Parents, educators, and policymakers are increasingly aware of the importance of creating programs that provide low-income youth with character skills training, which along with self-control, includes fortifying traits such as optimism, resilience, and persistence.

The new findings from Northwestern University suggest that self-control is more complex than previously thought. Self-control has unforeseen negative consequences for low-SES youth that should be considered when creating and implementing these interventions. 

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts: 

© Christopher Bergland 2015. All rights reserved.

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