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People with strong self-control can withstand more physical discomfort, research suggests

People with high levels of self-control have a greater threshold for physical discomfort a new study suggests.

Self-control could relate to stopping drinking or smoking, or keeping to a diet

Sport scientists at Nottingham Trent University wanted to see how levels of self-control determined tolerance to a task which induced breathlessness, or ‘air hunger’ which is an unpleasant urge to breathe.

As part of the study participants experienced a standardised ‘rebreathing’ challenge, which involves breathing a very gradual increase in carbon dioxide, which is a potent trigger for air hunger.

They were monitored over a period of six minutes or until they reached what they felt was an intolerable level of discomfort.

In a similar way to pain, air hunger – or dyspnoea – elicits a desire to alleviate the sensation and self-control is required to endure it.

To assess individual levels of self-control participants completed a questionnaire prior to the study.

The researchers found that males with high self-control were able to tolerate the rebreathing challenge for more than five minutes, almost a minute longer than those with low self-control.

Those with high self-control experienced slower increases in air hunger intensity during the task and reported lower perceived mental effort in relation to the task.

While there was no significant differences among female participants, those with higher self-control tolerated greater air hunger at the end of the challenge, which the researchers argue demonstrated a superior capacity to persist with the task than those with low self-control.

Self-control can be defined as a person’s ability to control and override a habit to achieve their goals – such as stopping smoking and drinking or keeping to a diet in order to lose weight.
Exerting self-control is seen as challenging as it requires people to overcome desires in the face of uncomfortable sensations, including effort, stress and pain. Exercise generates these same sensations, as people often have to battle the urge to quit in an act of self-control.

The researchers – the first to look at breathlessness in relation to self-control – argue that it’s possible those with high self-control experience slower increases in perceptual effort and discomfort due to habitually ingrained coping strategies.

They say the work aligns with previous reports of individuals with high self-control tolerating painful stimuli for longer than other individuals.

Future work could look at how self-control might influence perseverance with exercise or the symptoms of patients with chronic breathlessness.

“Those with high self-control demonstrated greater tolerance to dyspnoea during the challenge,” said James Brown, a researcher in Nottingham Trent University’s School of Science and Technology.

He said: “It may be the case these people would exhibit superior performance during high intensity exercise due to their better tolerance of general discomfort. If those with low self-control are less successful in tolerating similar sensations then it’s possible that this increased perception of discomfort may lead them to avoid exercise.

“Our findings could also help to explain why patients with chronic lung conditions do not always describe their symptoms in the same way, despite being physiologically similar.

“It is interesting that tolerance of the task was particularly significant in relation to male participants. Societal norms in how males and females are expected to react to aversive stimuli, in addition to biological and psychological differences may help to explain why we saw these results.”

The study is published in the journal Physiology and Behaviour.

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    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.

    NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with nearly 39,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.

    Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.

    NTU is ranked 2nd most sustainable university in the world in the 2022 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 30 January 2023
  • Subject area: Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Science and Technology