We’ve all followed an impulse, and regretted it. The expensive shopping trip. The argument with a friend or family member when you’re under stress. Or, worse, the “just one more” drink that puts you in dangerous territory, like snapping at a child or starting an argument with your partner.
Impulsivity isn’t always bad, but the fallout can range from minor embarrassment to damaged health or full-blown loss of relationships, even jobs. When the consequences of impulsivity are frequently negative, it’s time to start thinking about how to put on the brakes.
What’s the best way to rein in impulses? You’ve heard the old advice: count to 10. But impulses are difficult precisely becausethey take over and prevent forethought, making presence of mind — not to mention self-control — seem impossible. How do you even get to counting to 10?
William Marchand is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Utah School of Medicine (http://williamrmarchandmd.com/about-dr-marchand/biocv/). He’s also an ordained Zen monk who has practiced mindfulness meditation for decades.
“Emotions are very powerful,” Marchand notes. “They're created in the evolutionarily older part of the brain, and they're really designed to cause either fight or flight — the negative emotions like fear and anger or … positive emotions like pleasure and craving and reward.
“Those are incredibly powerful drivers, and our thinking patterns are also very powerful. So we do get carried away.”
But, Marchand says, there are ways to hit the pause button before grabbing that second piece of tiramisu.
The key lies in getting some distance from your emotions, then strengthening your ability to withstand cravings or urges. Mindfulness — a meditation technique that involves being present with thoughts and emotions rather than trying to change them — can help, because it is particularly powerful with cravings and impulses, such as addiction.
“Mindfulness has shown to be very effective for addictive disorders,” Marchand says. While he cautions that it’s “not a cure,” mindfulness “helps people recognize the craving and discover they don't have to respond it.”
So the next time you’re seized by an impulse, try simply being aware of it without taking action or judging yourself. “The mindfulness approach is simply to be fully present with our pain, and it will come and go,” Marchand says.
Taking that simple step to become aware of the impulse as it’s happening can bring about a major shift. “It's really all about the recognition,” Marchand says. “Cravings don't last that long, but they're incredibly powerful. A lot of it is just learning that we don't have to respond to what's going on in our head, because a lot of it doesn't make any sense, for all of us.”
The next step: Look for healthy outlets, since it’s not emotion itself that’s bad, but what you do with it. For example, instead of exploding at a friend (or the dog), try finding safe, nondestructive ways to express anger. Strenuous exercise, creative activity such as writing a song, even punching a pillow — all can provide an outlet for strong emotions and are safe expressions of the negative emotions everyone deals with from time to time.
You may find they provide a release and help you feel better. “The mindfulness piece is where someone gets from the point of being carried away with their thoughts and emotions or cravings to actually noticing what's going on and realizing they do need [a] healthy diversion,” Marchand says.
If you’d like to go further, he suggests trying meditation. Classes are available online and in person, he says, “but really a simple practice is just setting aside … 5 or 10 minutes and sitting in a quiet place and focusing on the physical sensations of the breath. We use the breath as an anchor for meditation because it's always with us, and it's neutral in emotional valence.”
Over time, “we can start to see those automatic thinking patterns,” he says. “So rather than getting carried away with them, we are able to get some distance, and gradually we start to notice earlier and earlier when we're getting in those situations. Then we can do something like counting to 10.
”It's like standing by the flood watching the river go by, rather than falling in and getting carried away.”
March 12, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA