How Self Depletion Affects Self-Control and What To Do About It

We’ve all experienced the point in which we feel completely drained of mental energy. This often occurs after a long period of stress or a particularly volatile fight with a loved one. Depletion is a normal response to events that require a lot of mental energy. Unfortunately, this depleted state wears away at your ability to regulate your emotions, govern your actions, and respond in a constructive manner.

What Is Depletion?

Psychologists often refer to a term called “ego depletion,” which refers to this depletion of mental energy. In this context, “ego” doesn’t mean to be egotistical or arrogant. Rather, it is a psychological phrase referring to the self and the ability to exert self-control.

Psychologists believe that ego depletion is essential for understanding the processes that can lead to poor choices. In a classic experiment on ego depletion, researchers studies individuals who were offered chocolates versus radishes. Those who resisted the temptation of the chocolates later performed more poorly on a challenging puzzle task. The researchers concluded that having to exert self-control over eating behaviors actually drained away important mental energy. This depleted state left few mental resources to solve problems.

Sources of Depletion

What is surprising about the researchers’ original findings is that even a small act requiring willpower — resisting the temptation to eat some chocolates — had significant consequences for subsequent mental energy and self-control. Think about all of the choices you face throughout the day that require willpower or mental resources. Avoiding the urge to snap at your children who are taking too long to get ready in the morning, agreeing with an unpleasant coworker to avoid a confrontation, choosing to drink mediocre coffee at work rather than indulging in a specialty espresso beverage from Starbucks. All of these choices require willpower and self-control. Over time, they may deplete your resources and leave you vulnerable to outbursts or dysregulated behavior.

The causes of self depletion are all around us. Consider whether the following sources of depletion are present in your life:

Anxiety or worry

Social media, particularly when making comparisons with others

Chronic pain


Trying not to think or keep yourself focused on a task

Fatigue and sleep deprivation


Getting caught up in decisions, both large and small

Low glucose

Consequences of Depletion

The potential consequences of depletion are wide ranging. When we do not have the mental energy to focus and exert self-control, we often go on “autopilot.” Unfortunately, our brain’s shortcuts often yield problematic results. When we lose the ability to self-regulate, we respond more rapidly and with greater intensity.

Parenting is a great example of self depletion at work. Anyone who has cared for a child knows that it takes an enormous amount of patience and self-control to perform even the simplest tasks. Simply going to the store for a gallon of milk can take an hour or longer! As the self becomes depleted through continuous acts of self-control, caregivers are more likely to lash out. This leads to yelling or another response that is disproportionate to the situation.

If you’re noticing that you feel snappish, quick to anger, highly emotional, or just plain crabby, ego depletion may be the culprit. Fortunately, there is a way to overcome ego depletion. Self care repletes and replenishes your mental energy, restoring balance to your life.

How Nutrition Affects Self Depletion

The brain relies on glucose as a vital source of energy. Several scientific studies have shown that people with low blood sugar have more difficulty with self-regulation. Anecdotally, anyone who has ever felt “hangry” (so hungry you’re angry) knows that this can be true.

Avoiding low blood sugar is one of the best ways to prevent depletion from affecting your mental health. For many people, this is best achieved by eating small, more frequent meals throughout the day. It is also important to eat low glycemic index (GI) foods. These are foods that do not significantly cause spikes — and later drops — in blood sugar.

Examples of low-GI foods include grass-fed beef, sea bass, eggs, tofu, whole-wheat bread, brown rice, walnuts, flaxseeds, avocado, green beans, corn, tomatoes, and olive oil. Try to incorporate these foods into your meals each day to keep your blood sugar stable. At the same time, avoid heavily processed foods, which often contain simple carbohydrates that cause blood sugar to fluctuate. Sugary cereals, white rice, mashed potatoes, and pretzels are high-GI foods that are best to avoid.

Beyond Diet: Replenishing the Mind and Soul

Eating a healthy diet full of low glycemic index foods can do wonders for replenishing your self. However, diet is not the only way to feel replete. It is important to nourish the mind and soul through self care activities.

Good self care may include frequent meditation, exercise, connection with loved ones, and humor. Think about the times when you feel most relaxed and at peace. Perhaps you’re taking a bubble bath, savoring a glass of wine, or laughing with friends. Those are the activities to prioritize when life stressors are depleting your resources. Savoring these experiences creates a long-term memory storage of the event, allowing you to re-access those feelings when you’re in need of nourishment.

With some practice, you will begin to notice when you’re feeling depleted. To rebalance your self, take action to replenish and nourish your mind, body, and soul.


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