How to Control Your Impulses

By Kristie Reilly and Sherry Baker @SherryNewsViews
April 27, 2022
Woman in a shopping trolley --- Image by © Image Source/Corbis

Impulsivity can get you in big trouble, especially after the fact. But if you think you can’t control yourself, think again. Here's what you can do.

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.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: What Is Mindfulness Meditation?


What’s the best way to rein in impulses?

You’ve heard the old advice: count to 10. But impulses are difficult precisely because they 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, MD, is a psychiatrist and neuroscientist at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He’s also an ordained Zen monk who has practiced mindfulness meditation for decades. In fact, he is a mindfulness teacher as well as a researcher and doctor.

Mindfulness is a meditation technique that involves being present with thoughts and emotions rather than trying to change them. The practice, Marchand says, can help mental health in several ways. For example, he’s the author of “Mindfulness for Bipolar Disorder,” a book in which he describes how mindfulness meditation can help reduce the mood swings and other symptoms of bipolar disorder.

But mindfulness meditation has benefits for controlling emotions in general, including putting a halt on impulsive actions. “Mindfulness has been shown to be very effective for addictive disorders,” Marchand explains. While he cautions that it’s “not a cure,” mindfulness “helps people recognize the craving and discover they don't have to respond it.”

“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.”

Hitting the pause button

Marchand says practicing mindfulness can help you hit the pause button before grabbing that second piece of tiramisu or doing something else impulsively that you’ll likely regret later. Mindfulness is key because it gives you some distance from your emotions, then strengthens your ability to withstand cravings or urges.

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 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,” he explains.

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, or even punching a pillow can provide an outlet for strong emotions and are safe expressions of the negative emotions everyone deals with from time to time.

“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.” Marchand offers more meditation resources on his website.

Over time when you practice the mindfulness approach to halting impulses, you’ll start to see those impulsive automatic thinking patterns change, according to Marchand.

“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,” he says.

“It's like standing by the flood watching the river go by, rather than falling in and getting carried away.”


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: How to Boost Your Self-Control



April 27, 2022

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN