Bringing Impulsivity Under Control
Updated: Sep 29, 2019
In a previous blog post, we explored the concept of impulsivity.
Impulsivity is the tendency to take immediate and unplanned action as a response to internal or external stimuli. It is the failure to resist the urge to act according to what just ”feels” right in the moment, without being able to take the potential negative consequences to ourselves and/or others into consideration.
It means an inability to inhibit an urge combined with impaired judgement in the moment, because instant gratification of the urge seems more important and pressuring to satisfy rather than withholding it because of the possible consequences.
Impulsive behaviour has many expressions, such as impulsive aggression, explosive rage, picking up fights, saying hurtful remarks to loved ones that you later regret, indulging in risky behaviours (e.g. reckless driving, shoplifting, self-harming, sexual promiscuity), binge eating episodes, alcohol and substance abuse, rash decision-making, overspending and many more. Impulsivity is a feature of many mental disorders and can often indicate a severe traumatic and abusive background.
Impulsivity can be a self-sabotaging behaviour, since it can cause multiple detrimental effects in many areas of your life. It can greatly damage personal and professional relationships and create obstacles in your personal progress and career development, thus severely harming your overall well-being, self-worth and generally all aspects of your mental health and quality of life.
If you find yourself often acting on your impulses and in the spur of the moment, out of control to actually think before you act, and realize how impulsivity wrecks havoc in your life, then it is reasonable that you would like to work on it and bring it under control, before it really ruins your life.
But, when you are impulsive it actually means that you feel out of control! So how do we approach this?
Well nobody said it is an easy process… But it is not mission impossible either! Like with any other undesired behaviour, the potential of change is really there as long as you want to change it.
The key word here is Mindfulness. The more you practice mindfulness, observing yourself and your emotional cognitive and behavioural reactions without getting further entangled in them, the better your chances are of acting differently in the future.
Let’s explore how.
If you find yourself often feeling like a victim of your impulses, therapy can be really effective in addressing this issue. All therapeutic approaches can successfully treat impulsivity. Exercises and skills training from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Dialectical Behaviour Therapy or Mindfulness-Based Therapy are specifically focusing on dealing with distress, finding alternative coping behaviours instead of impulsive ones and helping you stay in the moment. Some of these techniques are shared below.
Recognize your Triggers
For any behaviour that you wish to change and improve, a very first step towards this goal is to analyze it and start realizing what contributes to its expression.
This entails recognizing your triggers.
Think of a recent episode of impulsive behaviour you have had.
What sets you off? What happened prior to you acting impulsively? What was your hot spot that was touched, resulting in you acting in the spur of the moment? That is your trigger.
Thought Record Exercise
An exercise from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy aiming to explore the links between triggering situations, emotions, thought processes, and behaviours, and conceptualize potential alternative behaviours as well is the Thought Record. This is a great tool to help you become increase your self-awareness and consciousness and learn how to objectively observe yourself.
Take a piece of paper or open a digital document and divide it in the following columns or categories:
What was the situation that triggered your impulsive behaviour?
What happened and how?
When/ Where/ Who were you with?
Which emotions did you feel at that time?
How intense were they?
What went through your mind exactly? Which thoughts popped up? What was the thought process?
What disturbed you and why?
What did those thoughts/images mean to you?
What button was pressed for you?
What was the worst possible scenario or belief about yourself that occurred to you?
Remember: Often we confuse emotions and thoughts, or we are not sure what came first and preceded the presence of the other. When you identify the thoughts, maybe more emotions will come up- and vice versa.
Where did you feel it in your body? Did you notice physical sensations or changes?
What did you do? How did you (re)act?
Challenge your thoughts: What would be another way to look at this instead or another interpretation? What is a more balanced perspective? Was your reaction in proportion to what actually happened? What advice would you give to a friend?
Act Differently: What could you have done differently? How could you act in the future in a similar situation to avoid negative consequences? What does your Wise Future Self suggest to you?
This is another exercise coming from the CBT therapy toolkit. It is an acronym so that you can easily remember all of its components. It is essential to first practice becoming mindful of your triggers and the sequence of thoughts/emotions/behaviours that can follow, so that you can learn to control and stop yourself upon realizing the presence of a trigger.
When you do, visualize a huge red STOPP sign like the one above.
Stop: Just pause for a moment
Take a Breath: Notice your breathing as you inhale and exhale
Observe: Notice the thoughts going through our mind, the emotions that rise up as a result, what you feel in our body, and the urge to react in an impulsive way. Become mindful of the vicious cycle of anxiety, sadness and anger.
Pull Back- Put in Some Perspective: When you step back emotionally from a situation, and start to see the bigger picture, it reduces those distressing beliefs. We can do this by asking ourselves questions. Challenge your thoughts as discussed in the Thought Record, try to change your perspective and define if what is happening is a fact or an opinion (=your own interpretation).
Practice what works- Proceed: Rather than reacting impulsively with unhelpful consequences, you can CHOOSE a more helpful and positive response. What is the best way to react right now, for yourself, the others and the situation overall? Do what is more effective and appropriate.
There are certain situations that make us more likely to be emotionally reactive and act impulsively.
Remember the acronym HALT: when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired, we can be more irritable and volatile and then react in ways we may later regret.
Wait it Out- Distraction and Grounding Techniques
We discussed that instant gratification is the main reason of any impulsive behaviour. The short-term consequence of stress relief that will occur right after you act impulsively is why you keep acting impulsively. The immediate satisfaction is that such a behaviour momentarily takes away anxiety, stress and fear- because you act on what feels right in that moment.
For instance, when you are very sad or stressed, you might binge on food because that will help you with coming down from the intense emotional arousal you feel. People that self-mutilate do so to counteract intense negative emotions of despair, pain, anger, sadness or emptiness and replacing them with physical pain, that releases the tension in that moment.
So what you can do, is change the immediate consequence of your behaviour by distracting yourself and giving yourself some time to come back into your Window of Tolerance. Get your balance back by finding ways of waiting a bit, just until your urge passes! It actually happens faster than you may think, but only requires practice to gain control over your urge.
There are numerous distraction techniques you can employ whenever you feel the urge to act impulsively. You can see which ones work best for you, and the more you practice distraction, distress tolerance, grounding and relaxation techniques, the better you will get in acting in more effective ways than simply being impulsive and sabotaging yourself.
Basically to break free from impulsivity means to explore and apply various emotional regulation skills, in order to learn how you can self-regulate.
More or less all of the techniques presented here aim to help you create some space for your prefrontal cortex to process the situation, employ judgement and not react simply on your emotion. So anything you can do to distract yourself and give some time to yourself can help.
This can be the good old Counting to Ten , for instance. Or temporarily escaping the situation to give you some time to calm down. For example, you may want to go to another room, if you are triggered when in interaction with a loved one, to avoid acting impulsively. If your impulsive behaviour has to do with a triggering situation with a loved one, you can also employ the One Day Rule- can you wait one day (or any other time period as based on the Delayed Worry principle) before you choose to react with a potentially argumentative conversation?
Ground Yourself - Get in Touch with your Body - 5-4-3-2-1
When you get triggered and flooded with emotion, that further activates dysfunctional thought processes that may urge you to act impulsively, it is really effective if you can come back to your body.
Loose your mind and Come to your Senses (Fritz Perls) means exactly this: focus your attention on your body. A great grounding exercise comes from the EMDR toolkit:
Notice 5 things you see, 5 things you hear, 5 things you feel in your body (physical sensations)
4 things you see, 4 things you hear, 4 things you feel in your body…
Don't worry if the stimuli repeat themselves. It doesn't matter. What is important is that you gradually and increasingly become more and more in touch with your body. When you focus your attention to your senses, it leaves the disturbing chatter of your mind.
By the time you complete the exercise, you will already have given yourself the time to cool down and the urge of acting impulsively will have passed.
Regard the Consequences of your Behaviour
This can not easily be done amidst emotional arousal -that’s the nature of impulsivity after all-, so it is recommended to take some time when you are in a calm and relaxed state to carefully consider the short and long-term consequences (both positive and negative) of your impulsive behaviour. This can help you in raising awareness about them. The more you do it, the more you teach your brain to have these consequences a little bit more to the foreground when you are triggered.
Replace your Impulsive Behaviour with a more healthy one
While in a calm and relaxed state, make a list with all possible alternative behaviours you can employ when you are triggered. This can include pretty much anything, for instance journaling about your emotions. It is scientifically proven that writing down about your thoughts and emotions in the moment they occur does actually help with emotional release. It can also mean taking a walk outside, engaging in physical activity, dancing it out- anything to release the tension.
Become in touch with your Future Self
Like we discussed in a previous blog post, by visualizing your Future Self that is already past the point that you are currently struggling with, your brain creates the links towards that desired outcome. Consider, which skills you already possess, and what do you still need in order to get there?
All of these techniques require a lot of practice until they succeed. Change does not come overnight, so be compassionate with yourself and do not get disappointed if you fail in controlling your impulses at first. Remember that to fail is to be human.
What I can definitely guarantee you, is that the sense of satisfaction that will fill you the first time when you will succeed, will be far more gratifying than giving in to your impulse. Keep trying until you get there!