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Last Updated on January 6, 2020

How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life

How to Have Self-Control and Be the Master of Your Life

Self-control is certainly not a new kid on the block in psychology. It’s been around for a while, but it continues to enchant scientists. Time and again, it proves to be a true star—it brings many benefits to those who can successfully practice it.

Study after study confirms that if we just find the way to strengthen our self-control, our lives will become so much better—we’ll eat healthier, exercise, won’t overspend, overdrink or overdo anything that’s bad for us. We will be able to achieve our goals much easier. Success will not be a distant chimera anymore.

Simply put, if you know how to control your temptations, emotions and behaviors, “the world’s mine oyster,” as Shakespeare told us many years ago.

In this article, we will take a look at how self-control works and what you can do to improve your self-control and live the life you want.

What Is Self-Control?

According to Psychology Today,[1]

“Self-control is the ability to subdue one’s impulses, emotions, and behaviors in order to achieve longer-term goals.”

It is rooted in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain[2] —the area, responsible for planning, decision-making, personality expression, and distinguishing between good and bad.

Self-control is also the ability to resist short-term temptation and to delay immediate gratification, so that you can accomplish something much more worthy and better in the future. “Short-term pain for a long-term gain,” as the Greats teach us.

The most famous manifestation of self-control and its benefits is the famous Marshmallow test.[3] It was a series of studies, conducted in the late 1960s and early 1970s, by psychologist Walter Mischel, a professor at Stanford University. The test was simple—children between the ages of four and six were told that they can have one treat (a marshmallow, candy or a pretzel) now, or wait for 15-20 minutes and get two treats instead.

It’s not hard to guess that more kids chose instant over delayed gratification. But the researchers then tracked the ones who decided to wait, through their high school and adulthood. What they found out was that self-control helped these kids tremendously later in life—they had higher academic scores, better emotional coping skills, less drug use, and healthier weights.[4]

So, it’s quite simple then—to ensure future success, teach kids better self-control.

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But it’s not always easy, it turns out.

Why Self-Control Matters

Ever since the Marshmallow test, self-control has been the protagonist in many other studies. And it generally lives up to its hype. It does give great advantages to those who are able to practice it well.

Self-control tends to be close friends with things as goal-achievement, mental and physical health, and lots of other important parts of life—relationships, academics, sports, career, and self-esteem. Simply put, willpower is a ‘must-have’ when it comes to eyeing any type of accomplishment.

Interestingly enough, according to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey from 2011, from 2011,[5] 27% of respondents noted that lack of willpower was the most important impediment to change.

Lack of self-control is the major obstacle to maintaining healthy weight too. Studies back this up—children who learn to control their impulses are less likely to become overweight in adulthood.[6]

Willpower is also a major contributor to a leading a healthier lifestyle—it can help prevent substance abuse—alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs.

So, there is no doubt about it—self-control matters quite a lot for everything we do or want to do.

Is Our Willpower Unlimited?

Undeniably, self-control is an “It”-trait to have when it comes to the successful completion of our goals.

In 1998, a team of researchers, led by the American psychologist Roy Baumeister, introduced an idea, which quickly earned its place as one of the most famous contemporary psychology theories. In the study, participants were brought into a room where on a table there were freshly baked cookies and radishes. Some were asked to try the cookies and the others—the radishes.

Afterward, both groups were given a hard puzzle to complete. Guess what? The group who ate the cookies had a go at the puzzle for 19 minutes, while the other group, who resisted eating the tasty cookies, lasted an average of 8 minutes.

Enter ego-depletion.[7]

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Willpower is a limited resource, researchers concluded. Using up your reservoir of self-control on one thing (resisting the cookies) can drain your mental strength for subsequent situations.

Another popular study supported the Ego Depletion theory too. We all have heard about “emotional eating,” right? We sometimes tend to overeat, if we feel that our emotions are all over the place—if, for instance, we watch a sad movie or something unpleasant happens to us. But what studies have found is that if we try to contain or hide our emotions, then our willpower will be depleted, and we will be less likely to resist overeating.

Simply put,

“Willpower depletion was more important than mood in determining why the subjects indulged.”

How to Get Better at Self-Control

Another outcome of the Ego Depletion theory was the revelation that self-control is like a muscle. It’s not fixed—it can be trained and improved over time with practice.

So, how can we get more of this good stuff? Here are few ideas:

1. Have Something Sugary

Yes, sounds a bit funny but it’s true. Studies show that the strength of our self-control is connected to our glucose levels.[8] The brain needs energy to operate and sweets provide that fuel.

Consuming sugary drinks increases blood-glucose levels and boosts our worn-down willpower.

2. Develop Your Internal Motivation

Other research tells us that when we are driven internally to achieve our goals versus by external motivators or to please others, our levels of willpower get depleted slower.

Simply put, “want-to” goals make us better at self-control than “have-to” goals. Makes perfect sense, of course.

Learn how to find your internal motivation here: Why Is Internal Motivation So Powerful (And How to Find It)

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3. Find Your “Why”

Closely linked to the above advice is the one about the purpose behind what we do. Using a so-called “high-level” abstract reasoning[9] — can help us practice better self-control too.

For instance, if you want to avoid eating a piece of cake, it’s easier to alleviate the temptation if you remind yourself that you want to stay healthy, rather than think how you will just eat a fruit instead.

4. Have a Plan in Place When Temptation Comes Knocking on Your Door

This technique is also known as “implementation intention”[10] and it simply means going though some “what-if” scenarios beforehand, so that you can have a strategy when you feel the enticement to stray away from your goal and “live a little.”

For instance, if you want to quit smoking, you may consider bringing some nicotine gums with you when going out. This way, when you see others smoking, you take your gum out.

5. Use Your “Wrong” Hand

Using your non-dominant hand to do small things such as operating the computer mouse, opening the door, or stirring your coffee, are great ways to enhance your self-control powers, according to research.

Studies tell us that this can also help curb feelings of anger, frustration and even aggression—after only two weeks of practice, there are some noticeable benefits.[11]

6. Focus on One Goal at a Time

The Theory of Ego Depletion also advises that “that making a list of resolutions on New Year’s Eve is the worst possible approach” to improve self-control.

Since depletion has spill-over effect and often leaves you exhausted and unlikely to want to do anything more, going after multiple aspirations can only make you frustrated with yourself. Or, As Prof. Baumeister advises, don’t try to quit smoking, go on a diet and to on a new exercise plan all at the same time.

7. Find a Way to Earn More Money

When the Marshmallow test was done with kids from less affluent families, they were unable to engage in delayed gratification—i.e. they chose not to wait for the second treat. Coming from a low-income background forces people to live in the now and seek immediate indulgence,[12] when possible.

In contrast, when someone is better-off financially, they are used to being spoiled and may be less tempted to go after instant rewards. Additionally, although self-control can be taught by letting children be independent, make their own decisions, solve problems, all of these depend on the parents spending time with their kids. And quite often, financially-struggling parents are also “time-poor.”

8. Avoid Temptation Altogether

In the Marshmallow test, the children who closed or averted their eyes from the marshmallow, were more likely to resist than those who were staring straight at the treat.

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Gretchen Rubin, the happiness guru, also writes on her blog that often, it’s harder to control your urges when you indulge in something, like chocolate, in small ways, rather than cutting it off completely.[13]

A resent piece posted in BPS Research also supports the idea that “goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower.”[14] When we know something is “off limits” altogether, we just stop thinking about it over time.

9. Practice

Since willpower is like a muscle, the more we practice, the better we become. While in the short-term we may feel depleted, in the long run, we will be able to build the strength and the stamina we need to successfully achieve our goals.

Exactly like going to the gym. The first few times you may feel exhausted and sore, but after a while, you will be able to fly through the same exercises that challenged you in the beginning.

10. Adopt Healthy Habits

Once we start practicing self-control and engage in healthier behaviors and choices, they, over time, will become habits. And when they do, we no longer will need so much willpower (if any) to do that activity. In fact, research across 6 studies found that people who are better at self-control also have better habits.[15]

Simply put, when our lives are based on habits, we are less frequently faced with making a decision, which require us to tap into our self-control reservoir.

Final Thoughts

Self-control is one of the biggest contributors to goal achievement and leading a better life in general. And although the jury is still out on whether the Ego Depletion Theory is valid across all situations and people,[16] the idea that we still need willpower to get us moving forward, is not in question. But we also need a motivation to start with and a way to monitor our behaviour and progress to accomplish success, as Prof. Baumeister advises.

So, to save yourself from the constant drizzles of disappointment with seeing your dreams crushed and burned over and over, take the time and try practicing some self-control.

The Future You will thank you.

More About Self-Control

Featured photo credit: Free To Use Sounds via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: Self-Control
[2] CNN Health: Where is self-control in the brain?
[3] Mischel, Walter: The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control.
[4] Business Insider: The famous Stanford ‘marshmallow test’ suggested that kids with better self-control were more successful. But it’s being challenged because of a major flaw.
[5] American Psychological Association: The APA Willpower Report
[6] Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med.: Self-control as a protective factor against overweight status in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
[7] Case Western Reserve University: Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?
[8] American Psychological Association: What You Need to Know about Willpower: The Psychological Science of Self-Control
[9] PsyBlog: How to Improve Your Self-Control
[10] Psychology Today: Implementation Intentions Facilitate Action Control
[11] Science Direct: Want to limit aggression? Practice self-control
[12] The New Republic: Poor People Don’t Have Less Self-Control. Poverty Forces Them to Think Short-Term
[13] Gretchen Rubin: Want To Be Free From French Fries? Or, Why Abstaining May Be Easier Than You Think
[14] The British Psychological Society: Goal attainment seems to be about avoiding temptation, not exercising willpower
[15] J Pers Soc Psychol.: More than resisting temptation: Beneficial habits mediate the relationship between self-control and positive life outcomes.
[16] Science News: Sometimes a failure to replicate a study isn’t a failure at all

More by this author

Evelyn Marinoff

A wellness advocate who writes about the psychology behind confidence, happiness and well-being.

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Last Updated on January 13, 2020

How to Use the 5 Minute Journal to Invest in Your Happiness

How to Use the 5 Minute Journal to Invest in Your Happiness

I was 10 and it was a white Lisa Frank journal with a red bubble gum dispenser on the front. It also came with a heart-shaped lock and key which was a must considering I had an older brother living under the same roof who was always looking for new and inventive ways to humiliate me.

That one little journal (okay…I called it a diary back then) unlocked a world of potential to me which quite literally became my saving grace, my happy place, for the rest of my life.

Over the years, the aesthetics of my journal evolved, as did my writing subjects and style thankfully. But the one thing that’s been constant is that, no matter how sad I am or how bad things have seemed before I started writing, somehow the world and my place in it always becomes clearer and less noisy after just 5 minutes of “writing it out.”

In this article, we will take a look at how investing a few minutes a day in the 5 minute journal can lead you to happiness.

The Benefits of the 5 Minute Journal

For most of my life, I never really knew or cared why writing for even 5 minutes made me happier, I just knew it worked.

If I was feeling lost or unhappy, I’d eventually realize I hadn’t written in a while (duh!). So I’d meet myself back at the blank page and word by word, start feeling more like me again.

To be completely honest, I did (and still do) this forgetting-to-journal dance way more often than I’d like to admit. For the life of me, I don’t know why I don’t keep doing the thing I know makes me happy every day instead of waiting until I’m unhappy to do the thing. Can you relate?

I’m pretty certain it’s not just a me thing: it’s a human thing. We know we’ll be happier if we eat better, exercise, disconnect from technology, get more sleep, etc. but often times, it takes us feeling unhappy in order to put in the effort to be more happy.

A couple of months ago, I found myself in that place:

I’d hit a wall of resistance around my business and a downturn in my health that caused me to doubt what I was capable of accomplishing. I was completely confused and indecisive about the direction of my business and where I should be focusing my limited energy, so I hired a coach to help me sort through my noisy brain.

As I laid out all of my decisions and endless to-do lists in front of her, she asked me an important question:

What’s one thing you can start doing everyday that will have a positive impact on all of these things?

In other words: What if instead of having to worry about ALL THE THINGS to be happier, you could just do ONE thing and everything else would get better too?

I could start every day with a few minutes in my journal.

It’s both hilarious and embarrassing that as a coach and a writer (and a coach who works with writers), that I hadn’t thought of this myself. Alas, as the saying goes, doctors are the worst patients.

Of course, the answer was writing in my journal! Isn’t the answer almost always the most obvious thing?

But sometimes, the answer is so obvious, so simple, so free and convenient that we convince ourselves that it can’t possibly do that much to improve our situation. Somehow in the busy-ness of life, I’d convinced myself I just couldn’t spare that time to do something so…(cringe) arbitrary.

Yet, as I thought about my coach’s question and the ONE THING that could positively affect all the things, I realized that journaling for me has always been so much more than a random outlet for exploring my feelings.

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Sure, nothing actually happened but me sitting on my bed in my pajamas writing. Over the years, from breakups to big moves, my most life-changing moments–like my decision to pursue writing as a career, to uproot my entire life and move cross country, and my finally feeling ready to become a mother–happened in the quiet moments between me and the pages of my journals.

How to Be Happy with the 5 Minute Journal

The other day I was talking to a friend of mine about writing this article. I asked her how often she journals and if she thought it made her happier.

In general, she said, yes, journaling does seem to help her get things off her chest but she doesn’t always feel better afterward. And, in fact, sometimes if she’s already in a negative place, she can spiral even worse while journaling and go to an even darker place.

She told me that usually with time and perspective, she can see that just the act of writing and getting out of her head is therapeutic but, suggested that for people like her, prompts to help her not spiral into the negative abyss would be super helpful.

And so, in order to make sure you get the most out of your 5 minute journal, I’ve broken up each writing prompt based on how you’re feeling so you can let your emotions guide the best prompt for you that day to increase your happiness meter.

1. When you’re burnt out, talk to your inner hero (a.k.a the “real” you).

What’s the one thing everyone tells you about maintaining happy, healthy relationships?

You’ve gotta have great communication!

But what about your relationship with yourself? How do you connect with you? How do you continue being the hero in your story?

The same way that you have to make the time to connect with the people in your life who mean the most to you, you also have to make the time for you to hear your voice:

To remember what YOU sound like amidst all of the noise in the world. To listen to your inner hero.

For me, the only way I know how to do this, the only way I’ve ever known how to do this, is through journaling.

Our brains can go down negative spirals, especially when we’re tired and stressed.

In my last Lifehack article about finding motivation, I walk you through some questions you can ask yourself about whether you’re playing the role of victim or hero of your story. Definitely check it out if you’re really on the brink, or in the midst, of some serious burn out.

Essentially, if you’re burnt out, you’ve somehow let your circumstances take control of your life. In other words, you’ve started to act like the victim instead of the hero.

Luckily, just 5 minutes in your journal can help you find your inner hero (your true voice) and reclaim your right to live your happiest life.

Write down these questions in your journal and answer them one at a time–permission to be 100% honest granted:

  • What do I believe is the #1 reason I’m feeling burnt out?
  • Who or what did I blame in my last answer?
  • Taking 100% responsibility for my own life and decisions, and casting blame on no one (including myself), how can I improve this situation?
  • What decisions am I currently making to stay in these circumstances (how am I choosing them)?
  • What new decisions can I start making to get closer to where I want to be?
  • What do I need to let go of in order to get my energy back? What do I need to say “no” to?

When you start to own your role of hero, you start to realize how your current choices and limiting beliefs may be holding you back from living the happiest version of your life.

The great news is once you realize your past choices have brought you to your current circumstances, you also realize that you can make different choices to bring you to a happier place.

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2. When you’re doubting yourself, write off the gremlins.

Whenever I’m feeling down on myself, it usually has less to do with what’s happening on the outside, and more to do of what’s happening between my ears. In other words, how “I’m” talking to myself.

We all have little shame gremlins (I call mine “Mean Girls”) who live inside of our heads and tell us we’re dumb and ugly and worthless. The only way to combat those noisy buggers is to expose them for the liars they are.

Writing down these lies makes them powerless. Once they’re out of your head and on paper, you realize how ridiculous they truly are (even though they were completely owning you just moments before).

I like to write out all the nasties and put them in their place (which is on the page and out of my head, pronto). Then I can go back to living my happy truth.

Here are some powerful questions to ask your inner gremlins (perhaps better known as you being a real jerk to yourself). Write down each question and answer them in your journal.

Ask your gremlins:

  • What are you saying about me? (Don’t hold back. Really write down all of the terrible thoughts you’re having about yourself)

Then ask:

  • Is anything true about each of the things I just wrote?
  • Repeat this same exercise for each of the nasty things your gremlins are saying about you and expose them in their lies once and for all.

When you’re done, answer these powerful questions:

  • Knowing what I know now, what’s one thing I can do to improve each of these areas of my life?
  • Knowing that the voices of the gremlins are strong, what are 3 new beliefs or positive affirmations I can say daily about myself to drown out their negativity?

For example, let’s use a fictional character of a guy named Sam. Sam’s gremlins are telling him “you’re a lousy parent, a terrible spouse, and mediocre at work.”

If Sam asks himself, “Am I really a lousy parent?” Maybe his answer is “No, I love my kids and I’m doing the best I can. I just wish I could be more attentive when I’m with them instead of so distracted by work.”

So maybe Sam decides to not bring his work computer home with him anymore and really unplug once he leaves the office so he can give his kids his full attention.

Sam decides that his new daily affirmation is: “I’m a loving father and am fully present for my kids. I save the best of me for my family.”

Imagine how much better you’ll feel when you start to take back control over your self talk and program in the messages that empower you and get you closer to the person you strive to be.

3. When you’re indecisive or afraid, talk to your fear.

Those same shame gremlins or mean girls inside of our heads feed off of fear. It’s like a good piece of gossip they can’t help but spread and exaggerate.

Luckily, when we write out how we’re feeling and what negative thoughts are spiraling, we can generally recognize when it’s actually just our fears talking.

You’re probably wondering how to tell if it’s fear talking or your intuition, right? This is where exploring your feelings comes into play.

Are you feeling powerless? Are you feeling anxious or sad? Everyone’s response to fear is different but it’s never a positive feeling.

If you’re at peace and calm but feel nudged that something isn’t right, that’s most-likely your intuition talking. But if you’re in a glass cage of negative emotions, you can bet fear is the culprit.

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Don’t hate on fear too much though. Our fears are just trying to protect us from something–the rub is they also usually keep us from something even better in the process.

I like to use journaling as a way to have a little talk with my fear, understand where it’s coming from and then decide if it’s worth listening to.

Here’s your journaling prompt for hashing it out with your fear:

Again, write down these questions in your journal one at a time and answer each one:

Ask your fear:

  • What are you trying to protect me from?

Once you answer that, ask:

  • What are you preventing me from having if I listen to you?

If the thing you really want is on the other side of your fear, then you know what you have to do next (luckily journals are a great place to make to-do lists as well)!

My last and favorite questions to ask fear is:

  • What’s the absolute worst-case scenario?

For example, let’s say you’re terrified of breaking ties with a client who is making your professional life miserable. You may answer this question with something like “My client blacklists me and smears ugly rumors about me all around town and not only do I lose one client but my entire business goes down.”

Eeesh. That does sound scary. Now ask yourself:

  • What are some steps I can take to ensure the worst case scenario doesn’t happen?

And then:

  • How likely is it that the worst-case scenario will actually happen (especially if I use the plan above)?

Maybe, when you think about it, the client is actually preventing you from bringing in new business because they’re taking up so much of your time.

And maybe that client doesn’t even have the best reputation so the chances of them being able to bring you down are pretty small.

What if you spent one hour a week for the next 3 weeks working on bringing in new business to replace the the income you make from that client, and figure out a way to end the contract in a very respectful, classy way to hopefully make the odds of them making a stink minimal?

Now you have a plan! But there’s one more question to ask yourself:

  • If the worst case scenario happened, what would you do?

Maybe you realize that if you really needed to, you could always go back to your previous job; they loved you and beg you to all the time. Or you could get by for a couple of months until you were able to bring in some more clients, especially if you cut back on expenses.

Once you stare your fear in the face, it magically loses its power. Left inside of your head, it can destroy you; but taking a few minutes to look at it and use it as a friend who’s showing you where you may need to implement a plan in order to protect yourself, you can take back the reins of your happiness and realize that fear really isn’t all that scary at all.

At this point, it needs to be said that journaling isn’t only good for getting out the nasty feelings, it’s also super useful for recording the good stuff of life which leads me to the fourth writing prompt.

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4. When you’re in a funk, focus on gratitude.

Just about any happiness book or article you read will tell you that being in a state of gratitude dramatically increases your happiness. For me, having a place to get down to the truth of my life and what’s actually going really well and what I’m grateful for helps put everything into perspective, especially when I’ve got a case of the blues.

Here are some of my favorite gratitude prompts to help get me out of a funk and focusing on the sunnier side of life.

Write down these questions in your journal one at a time and answer each one:

  • What is something good that happened today?
  • What made me laugh or smile today?
  • Who am I grateful for today?
  • What am I grateful for today?
  • With my “gratitude glasses” on, how do my problems or the funk I’m in look in relation to all of the good things I have in my life?

Take a look at this article too to learn more about keeping a gratitude journal: How a Gratitude Journal and Positive Affirmations Can Change Your Life

Shifting out of a funk and into gratitude shifts your energy out of “woe is me” and into “yay for me” which means, based on the Law of Attraction, you’ll begin to attract more of the things you want and less of what you don’t. Seriously, yay for you!

5. When you’re uninspired or bored with the status quo, let it flow.

One of the best and easiest ways to tap into your inspiration and feel a little bit of creative magic in your life is through stream of consciousness writing.

I dare you to put your pen on a blank page for 5 minutes and do nothing but make sure the pen doesn’t stop moving.

No thinking. No judgements. The only thing you’re not allowed to do is overthink or judge your writing. It’s all good. Everything that comes out is good (even if it’s total crap).

When I was in grad school, I took this awesome class on creativity and in it read a book called From Where you Dream by Robert Olen Butler. The book is mostly about fiction writing but essentially, he says that the best time to tap into your subconscious (where your “flow” lives) is when you first wake up in the morning. Since you’re fresh from dreaming, your brain is still tuned to that frequency, so to speak, and not clouded by “reality” from your day-to-day life.

So my last and final 5-minute journal prompt for you, uninspired one, is to wake up and let yourself keep dreaming on paper.

Here are your instructions:

  1. Set the timer for 5 minutes.
  2. Open your journal.
  3. Pick up your pen.
  4. Keep your pen moving until your timer stops.

What I love about this is it requires releasing all expectations and giving yourself creative freedom to let whatever needs to come out come out.

Become Happier in 5 Minutes (or Even Less)

Giving yourself a safe space to not expect anything other than to just show up and be honest is incredibly liberating.

In a world where there are endless things we are supposed to be doing, and ways in which we’re supposed to be doing them, I love showing up to a blank page with no requirements other than to just let my hand move.

It’s free and requires nothing from me other than just showing up wherever I am–talk about an endless source of grace!

Plus it gets my myriad thoughts out of my head and allows me to release them from my body, which research at top universities has shown can dramatically reduce stress.[1]

You don’t need to change EVERYTHING in your life all at once (it doesn’t work anyway, trust me, I’ve tried).

Start with giving yourself the gift of reflection in your journal every day and see how your life starts to change. I guarantee you’ll feel more connected with yourself in the process and over time everything in your life will start to be a better reflection of you and what you value.

And that, my friends, is the key to lasting happiness.

More Journaling Ideas

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Harvard Health Publishing: Writing about emotions may ease stress and trauma

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