Psychological Techniques for Impulse Control

20 July, 2020
Remember that we're emotional beings. A good part of our present and future is and will be conditioned by how we manage these sentient beings. And what could be closer to those sentient beings than our own impulses?
 

You could define impulses as a series of especially intense forces destined to direct your behaviors, overcome your ability to reason, and, I would say, force you to act in a way that goes against what you want. Impulse control is a difficult task that requires training and practice. You’ll only be successful when you get to the point that your ability to redirect its energy surpasses its strength.

Remember that you’re an emotional being. A good part of your present and future is and will be conditioned by the way you deal with that sentient being. Also, you know that every emotion has a purpose. Whether that purpose is negative or positive, they exist to mobilize you and give an answer to dilemmas that require a decision.

Sadness helps you process loss and protects you so that you can catch your breath in a safe space. Fear triggers flight, which can help you escape or avoid potentially life-threatening danger. Anger, for its part, helps you defend yourself.

While emotions are normally your ally, they can also become problematic. That happens when they stop being functional. The moment they get in the way of your life, your surroundings, and yourself. When that happens, good emotional management can make all the difference.

A lot of people struggle with overwhelming emotions. It’s as if the volume keeps getting higher and higher, reaching the limit of what they’re capable of feeling.

A guy covering his face with his hands.
 

Why can’t I control my impulses?

Some people find impulse control extremely challenging because they aren’t skilled at emotional regulation. People with borderline personality disorder, specifically, tend to have this problem. They live and act on pure impulse. There’s no middle ground. One day they love you, the next day they hate you. One day this is my life’s work, the next day I can’t stand it.

On the other hand, highly-sensitive people can also suffer from poor impulse control. That’s because even very minimal discomfort or suffering is extremely painful for them. They continuously tell themselves “I shouldn’t feel bad” or “I don’t have to experience negative emotions”. Denying those thoughts inevitably makes them feel worse.

While genetics do play an important role, they aren’t the only thing responsible for who you are and how you behave. While a certain part of your personality is programmed from birth, the experiences you have in your life (especially childhood) also have a significant impact.

Many factors influence your tolerance for suffering, your ability to regulate your emotions, and your interpersonal skills. Certain traumas, abandonment, parental neglect, and humiliation can stunt your emotional growth. Any kind of environment in which you weren’t allowed to express or experience emotions can contribute to poor impulse control later on in life.

What can I do to have better impulse control?

Modern psychology has developed many techniques and strategies to improve impulse control. In the words of Marsha Linehan, building a life worth living.

 

The first thing you need to know about these techniques is that they’ll only make sense if you recognize that you have an impulse control problem and decide you want to get better. If you’re not on board with making some changes, it doesn’t matter what kind of resources we offer. The first step is accepting who you are and how you behave. The second is being clear about your goals or what you hope to achieve.

Once you’ve taken those crucial first steps, the most important, in my opinion, you’ll be prepared to get the most out of the techniques we’ll share today. For these to work, you’ll need patience, will, and hope. Although it’s a slow process, it can be very productive if you really set your mind to it.

So, what kind of abilities should you be practicing?

Tolerance to discomfort

You’re probably thinking, “Easy for you to say!” And you’re right. This is something that’s much easier said than done. But give it a try. What does tolerating discomfort even mean? Basically, it means learning and internalizing the idea that pain is inevitable and unpredictable. We’re not just talking about emotional pain, either. Physical pain, as well.

You never know when you could get stung by a bee, for example. If that happens, you have to tolerate the pain until you can put something on the bite. If you want to be better at tolerating discomfort, there are three things you have to do, in this order: distract yourself, relax, and face it. Once you do this, you’ll be able to execute radical acceptance of your emotions and life’s disappointments. As a result, your problems won’t get the best of you.

 
A woman hugging her knees in a field.

Distraction

Emotions are very intense, but they don’t last long. That’s why distraction is essential. If you distract yourself from the problem at hand, your emotions will slowly come down. The best distractions are the ones that are related to other people. Calling a friend you trust, for example, to chat about some everyday things. Or ask your friend how they’re doing.

You can also do an activity you enjoy. Maybe you like to water and prune your plants, go on a run, go to the beach, or take a bubble bath. The point of the distraction is to avoid making any decisions or doing anything that you might regret later. That way, you can cool down and distance yourself a little from the situation.

Relaxation

If you want to truly relax, you have to train your five senses to pay attention to the present moment. Relax your sense of smell, sight, hearing, taste, and touch. Make a plan that works for you. What’s relaxing for your best friend might not work for you at all. Maybe you can sit on a bench at the park, set your phone down, and pay attention to what’s happening around you. What do you see? Children? What color are their eyes? What do you smell? Flowers? Do you hear children’s laughter? Practice mindfulness and notice how your impulses start to fade into the background.

 

Facing it

This is the hardest part because it involves solving the problem that you’re having. To do this step, you need a paper and pencil. Focus on the problem, not the emotion. It’s not about repeating how bad you feel. After all, you know that your emotions are there. Now, push them aside for a moment and solve the problem.

It might help to ask yourself a series of questions. What’s the problem? Is it related to work, your partner, your friends? What do you hope to achieve? What paths are available to you to get what you want? Will something bad happen if I choose one of these options? What’s the healthiest choice? When you respond to these questions, you’ll be much more capable of making a good decision and executing your plan.

Are you ready to try these out in the real world? Don’t lose sight of your life goals. When you feel that emotional tsunami getting closer, hit PAUSE and try these techniques. If you do it consistently and make a real effort, you’ll be able to get out of the pattern that you’re stuck in. Trust yourself!

 

McKay, M., Wood, J., Brantley, J. (2018). Manual práctico de terapia dialéctico conductual. Editorial Desclée De Brouwer, S.A

Linehan, M.M (1993a). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. Nueva York: Guildford Press.