What tricks do you use on your brain to stop impulsive behavior?
July 18, 2015 4:01 PM   Subscribe

I am very impulsive. My brain often persuades me to do things I shouldn't, like play games when i need to do work, spend money to eat a terrible meal when I'm on a diet, etc. It starts as a thought i dont think I'll act on, then grows fast from there. Impulsively inclined people: When your brain is trying to convince you that doing something you know is bad is fine 'just this one time', what tricks do you use on your brain to get it to cut it out?

Usually if I don't start doing something immediately to distract myself from engaging in whatever impulsive behavior i am considering, i begin to rationalize and then before I know it i'm already doing it. By this point I don't really care if I stop, but usually feel bad afterwards.

What tricks could I try on my brain to short circuit my thoughts and help increase my chances of resisting my impulsive urges? For example I read about putting a rubber band on my wrist and snapping it whenever i start thinking about, say, going to Mcdonalds instead of cooking a meal at home. Besides that all I can think about is distracting myself. But I can only focus on something else for so long, and the thoughts always seem to come back stronger than before every time until I give in.

People who have impulsive natures - let me know how you keep yourself from acting impulsively!
posted by Thanquol180 to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
I would not describe these behaviors as "impulsive," actually. It's impulsive if you book a trip to Las Vegas instead of studying for an exam; it's not impulsive to watch TV instead of studying for finals. TV is an easier thing that you'd rather be doing, not a random thing that suddenly became alluring.

It seems like you are just having trouble processing long-term gains for short-term deferral of pleasure. For example, if you're dieting, you know that the long-term benefits of a healthy diet yield more value on the long-term than the small meager comforts of eating whatever you want, damn the consequences. Likewise, saving money to invest for the future means you will be able to make a larger purchase at some point in the future, in exchange for a smaller purchase that brings you immediate gratification.

FWIW, our consumerism-driven society totally encourages us to go with immediate gratification over wise, long-term planning. So you definitely have your work cut out for you.

I think this is just something that comes with developing discipline and self-control. Unfortunately, I'm not sure what advice to give you to acquire these skills. I got mine through a harsh Catholic upbringing. Maybe try meditation or otherwise getting in touch with your inner swarming thoughts?
posted by deathpanels at 4:10 PM on July 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

You might find some of the skills in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) to be of some use; DBT is the standard treatment for BPD, which has poor impulse control as a major facet of the disorder. (Ask me how I know!)

Probably the most useful for this specific thing is going to be mindfulness; being aware of what you are thinking and doing. Being mindful can give you the space necessary to pause an impulsive act and allow the emotion/desire to recede a bit so you can approach the decision from Wise Mind (that is, the middle path between emotional decisions and rational decisions).

Making pro/con lists can also help. The trick is pausing yourself for long enough to do it, which is where mindfulness comes in. Behaviour chain analysis may also help.

So one possible strategy could be:

I want McDonalds!

Take a moment to be mindful of that. Tease apart the two pieces there: I am hungry. I want McDonalds.

Now you have a goal: get fed.

Your two options are 1) Cook something at home, 2) Go to McDonalds. Get a pen and paper, and write down the pros and cons of each method of achieving your goal. E.g. "If I spend $10 at McDs today, I won't be able to afford my morning coffee tomorrow." "If I eat at McDs today, I don't have to do dishes." "If I eat at home, I can portion control and make exactly what I feel like and I can eat in my pyjamas." etc etc.

I've found, personally, that the real utility in the exercise is delaying gratification of the impulse for long enough that the desire recedes on its own; by nature, impulsive acts are of the moment.

Bear in mind also that it's perfectly reasonable to make compromises. Maybe you'll make dinner, and after dinner walk down to McDs for an ice cream.

It might also be helpful to reframe away from 'bad' as a descriptor, and 'shouldn't.' Perhaps try looking at behaviours as "effective/ineffective for achieving X goal."

(I am not a therapist; I am a client)
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 4:34 PM on July 18, 2015 [38 favorites]

There are some people who can avoid these kinds of behaviors by making themselves feel bad for choosing what they shouldn't have or by telling themselves how virtuous they are for making the choice the "should" choose but I think those people are pretty rare. If you were one of them those kinds of tricks would have worked well before you considered snapping a rubber band on your wrist.

For me and a lot of other people, the trick is to arrange things so the easier option is to do the thing you should be doing. Prepare food before you are hungry, for example, sothe easiest thing is to eat that food and not go to a fast food place. Have very low calorie snacks around if you are trying to reduce the calories you are eating.

I don't think willpower and self-control in the moment are really meaningful things - the "self control" is setting things up in advance so you don't have to be in the "impulsive" situation.
posted by sputzie at 5:29 PM on July 18, 2015 [5 favorites]

You have a finite amount of willpower. If you have to use it during the morning to stay on task and not go play games, by lunch time you may have no willpower left. Willpower is often related to the state of your blood sugar, even when the temptation is for something other than food, such as not losing your temper, or not picking a scab.

It looks like you get some warning when you are tempted to do something, such as perhaps at 11 o'clock thinking of grabbing a chocolate bar and deciding not to, but then getting one anyway when you are on your lunch break at twelve.

This means there are several points where you can intervene. At eleven o'clock when you get the idea of buying that chocolate bar, you could immediately take steps to either raise your blood sugar by eating some protein, such as nuts, or by choosing something else that you will do that isn't the activity you want to prevent but which doesn't require you to keep using your will power.

Say you are studying all morning until eleven - when you start to crave the chocolate bar you may be running out of stamina, so if you stop studying right then and do something else that you want to do you won't keep burning out of will power as you would if you keep studying until noon. It may be that by switching to a task that requires less concentration you can give your brain a rest - maybe you are also supposed to walk over to school and deliver some reports and taking a walk to school is something that you are happy to do and don't have to think about. If you run that errand between eleven and twelve you may be able to resist the chocolate bar, and can still put in another hour of studying later that evening.

Another thing you can do is work backwards. It occurs to you that you would like to log into WOW but you need to get the yard work done. If your pattern holds true half an hour after you get this thought you will succumb to temptation and log in to Blizzard with the yard half mowed. So when the idea first occurs to you work from the assumption that your will power is going to fail and make it impossible to give in to temptation, such as by telling your little brother he can use your computer for the afternoon. Similarly if temptation will overcome you if you walk past a McDonalds in half an hour make sure you go to a location that doesn't have a McDonalds, or leave your wallet locked in your desk, or phone a colleague and suggest that you meet for lunch at a healthy sandwich bar.

Sometimes kinetic cues can help you with behaviour. Say you are trying to tear yourself away from WOW but can't seem to pull your eyes away from the screen. Begin by standing up while you continue playing, which of course will make it more awkward. Use your freehand to point in the direction you want to go. These kinetic cues can make it easier to tear yourself away from the computer. Another way of using kinetic cues is to link your hands behind your back. This is a helpful hack for people who like to look with their hands not their eyes because they are so tactile. You can't start fiddling with something you aren't supposed to touch if you are consciously locking your knuckles so that both hands are hooked shaped and are pulling on each other.

Sometimes if you know why you want something you can find an alternative activity. In it's simplest form if you are hungry and want to eat candy, you could theoretically eat something healthy and the desire for the candy will go away. But often your desires are more complex than this. You don't just want food you also want comfort. A nice mixture of sugar and simple starch and grease doesn't just nourish you, it provides a feeling of well being that a nice mixture of raw crunchy vegetables simply doesn't provide. The sugar is a sedative and gives you a blood sugar rush, the fat gives your digestive system a signal that you have had enough calories. Those crunchy raw vegetables may be good for vitamins and and fibre but they don't hit your stomach and generate the same feeling of satiation.

So then you can explore why you are doing the things you don't want to do from that standpoint. Why do the healthy and sensible behaviours fall short? What's the difference? Supposing you can find a middle ground between raw vegetables and McDonald's Super-sized meal deal? If you are eating the sugar and simple starches for their sedative effect then you could try doing something else that calms you such as putting on a cuddly soft sweater, or listening to tranquility music. If you are eating the fast food because it is a treat and you are feeling deprived you could try to find some other self-nurturing that doesn't break your diet, such as booking a vacation day or asking your s/o for a neck massage, or swinging past the library and picking up a couple of books for a blissful reading session in the evening. You hopefully know what kind of things make you feel that your emotional needs are being looked after.

Sometimes a lack of willpower goes with using a lot of will power in another area in your life. You may find that you keep stuffing your face with burgers and fries because you are angry all the time and what you really want to do is scream at the customers to slow down and give you a break. You may succumb to gaming when you are mentally tired and really need to get some sleep, but at the same time not physically tired enough to sleep.

Being brain tired is a common cause of failing will power. It's what I would suspect if your will power lapses happen when you just can think clearly any more and start operating on auto-pilot. That's a brain that has burned up all the available blood sugar and the higher brain functions such as planning are shut down. It goes on auto pilot and you do whatever is easiest like buying the first high calorie food you can see. The intervention has to take place long before you get your lunch break.
posted by Jane the Brown at 6:00 PM on July 18, 2015 [18 favorites]

I've found it very helpful to make sure that I incorporate downtime (or "crappy reality tv show time," truthfully) and high-calorie food and occasionally wanting to spend more money than I "should" into my reasonable expectations for myself, and just account for them in my time/calorie/money budgeting. If I keep saying "No" to myself all the time, I flip into "Fuck you, brain, you're not the boss of me!" mode and it's no good for anyone.

I really like fffm's description of running through the pros and cons; I do something similar, except for me it's more of a "Can I afford this (in terms of time or calories or money) right now, or should I maybe push it back a day or two when it makes more sense in terms of time/calories/money?" I find that if I think of it as a "Now vs. Later" instead of a "Now vs. Never," I make better choices, because I don't trigger my inner rebellious three-year-old. I also then get to enjoy anticipating a meal out or a day of couch-potato-ing, rather than feeling guilty about it, and I've noticed that creates a positive spiral -- I've been able to talk myself out of impulsive meals out (which are my downfall!) by thinking, "I don't want to waste the money and calories right now when I'm just going to feel crappy about it; I'll go there in a few days when I can enjoy it more." And sometimes I do go back in a few days, sometimes I don't, but I feel more in control of my choices either way.
posted by jaguar at 6:12 PM on July 18, 2015 [6 favorites]

This is the first thing I ever posted on MetaFilter back in 2007, and I still think on it regularly when I deal with my own issues of impulse control. I shamelessly repost it here, on the chance that it may be helpful. Of course, feel free to take what works and discard the rest.
One thing I've grown to realize with temptations like this is that in the moment, there's often the perception that the strong urge to give in lasts forever. If I don't give in, I'm going to be miserable on a permanent basis, wanting to have a smoke, binge eat, do whatever I'm trying to avoid, so I might as well give in rather than be miserable.

The reality is that urges do wane, if I stick with it; and part of the battle is reminding myself on a regular basis that the pain doesn't last forever. If I stick it out, I'll be in a better place where I'll be thankful that I didn't give in.

When it comes to temptation, it's kind of like going to the gym. When I don't feel like going, I never regret getting my butt over there; but I always regret not going. Similarly, I always regret giving in to temptation; but if I stick it out, I never do, because the rewards are worth it. It makes me wonder what the heck I was thinking previously to throw away my progress. Really, it's learning to think with my future self.

I've grown to see addiction temptation to be somewhat like an elliptical orbit around a planet. With every circuit, the temptation gets a little bit further away; but occasionally, the orbit will come in closer to the planet, and I have to deal with it again, trusting that it's temporary, if I do the work to stay healthy. Over time the orbit comes closer less frequently and grows less strong, as it gets further away. It'll probably always make an appearance at some point in the future, but previous work dulls its effect.

The trick is finding a way to remind myself of this on a regular basis, internalizing the truth of it, because the urge itself can change our longterm priorities. Really, that's the hard part; and honestly, I do it with varying degrees of success. I've not mastered it. But I've become convinced that there's much truth in it.

I hope this doesn't sound preachy. Good luck to you!
posted by SpacemanStix at 6:16 PM on July 18, 2015 [9 favorites]

Make it easier to do the right thing and harder to do the wrong thing.

You might be waiting too long to eat between meals, or there might be something about your typical meal from McDonald's that you are craving. What time of day does the impulse usually hit? Try eating a good snack about a half hour before that time.

I make the worst food choices when I wait too long to eat or haven't eaten well enough. For instance, if I don't eat lunch and then I have plans right after work - well of course I will find myself in the drive-through ordering a double cheeseburger. Pay attention to your body and what meals make you feel full and what meals leave you hangry in 2 hours - that information will help you plan.
posted by bunderful at 6:27 PM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I "impulse" myself away from the thing, or embrace the 'meh'. After a late night at work part of me is thinking, "Oh, it would be neat to go out and have a burger tonight for dinner!" But I just embrace my ambivalence about it (pro: delicious; con: not something I really want to be eating) go ahead and pack up and head out. And then I get on the car on my usual drive home and I start thinking about all the food that's in the fridge at home and as the exit for the burger joint whizzes by I think, "Eh, it's just easier to eat at home."

"Ooh, a donut shop!" "Meh... I don't really have the time to stop right now..."
posted by Lady Li at 6:33 PM on July 18, 2015

Adderall XR. Only thing that works for an extended period of time.
posted by Oktober at 6:35 PM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'm a lot like this. What helps me the most is telling myself, "I choose [healthy option]." By presenting it as a choice I am making, rather than an impulse I'm resisting or giving in to, I'm framing it as something completely within my control, and the healthy option as something I want to do.

I also sometimes choose the impulsive option, and when I do, I don't let myself feel bad about it. Not like "oh, I really shouldn't get this donut... but I really want it... oh fuck it just this once," but like "I want a donut, so I am going to get it."

By taking the guilt and judgment out of my internal monologue, I not only relieve some of the pressure around these impulses, but I can better enjoy the ones I do act on.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:07 PM on July 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

What works best for me is replacing goals with simple rules.

In this sense, "play fewer video games" or "eat healthier" is a goal. A rule is "I will only log on to play a game on Tuesdays" or "All weekday meals will start with a salad and will not have a dessert."

The problem with a goal is that you are smart enough to know that, say, eating a cookie or not is matter of any importance. So it's very easy to bargain with your future self and have future self promise to eat fewer cookies. If you have a cut-and-dry rule you know what it is and you can't re-frame a bad decision as a good one adding imaginary future events to the ledger.

With this strategy I can't emphasize simple and specific enough. No judgment whatsoever should need to be applied. I find it so much easier to stick to "desserts on Saturday only" rather than "one dessert a week"--let alone limiting portion sizes or something more challenging.

A final advantage is this gets you to the point where something is a habit relatively quickly, which reduces the actual will power needed.

This is basically personal experience but there have been some interesting variations on this sort of approach, as in this interesting radiolab episode.

I'm a lot like this. What helps me the most is telling myself, "I choose [healthy option]." By presenting it as a choice I am making, rather than an impulse I'm resisting or giving in to, I'm framing it as something completely within my control, and the healthy option as something I want to do.

Although it might not seem like it, this mental attitude is quite compatible with the rules approach and I use something like this as an additional motivator.
posted by mark k at 9:18 PM on July 18, 2015 [3 favorites]

I've found that in this particular struggle, I seem to be under the spell of all-or-nothing thinking.

I want- say, Ben and Jerry's pistachio. Not just some, not just sometime soon- A WHOLE PINT and RIGHT NOW.

My way of breaking the spell is to break the all-or-nothing-ness of it. Sure, I can have that- for breakfast, tomorrow.
Or, Yeah, no problem. A small cup every half hour til it's gone.

This seems to snap me out of it. I don't know how it works but it sure does.
posted by Puddle Jumper at 9:23 PM on July 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

Like Oktoberfest, the thing that has helped the most with this is medicine for ADHD and depression. It's made a huge difference in my life.
posted by dawkins_7 at 2:10 AM on July 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

The rubber band idea you suggested may treat the symptoms temporarily, but it doesn't treat the source or root of the symptoms.

If you have not had an evaluation with a mental health practitioner, and have health insurance or access to free or low cost mental healthcare, I would strongly recommend one. Impulsive behavior is often a component of ADHD; it can also be a component of some other mental health conditions.

I will say that as a diagnosed ADHDer, a combination of intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) with a psychotherapist AND medication are what have helped me to overcome much of my own impulsive behavior. I still have issues, but spending time on identifying (with an ADHD professional) the root cause of why I feel those impulses makes it much easier to go, "Oh, you're just my brain playing a trick on me right now."

I often will compare life to playing a video game - funny, since I rarely play actual video games! - and will address my "impulse desires" like a dangerous obstacle or some mystical monster I have to either avoid or slay. When I look at it that way, it makes the impulse seem pretty ridiculous and often, no longer as attractive.
posted by nightrecordings at 5:38 AM on July 19, 2015

Will power is over-rated. Overcoming the impulse to do something pleasant is difficult. Habit and preparation work better than will power. I recently realized that I was in the habit of buying cookies quite often, and then once they were in the house, gobbling them up. So my focus is not on resisting the cookies on the counter, but on resisting the cookies in the store. I'll be in the store 15 minutes and can exercise that willpower.

Prepare for success by making it easy to start work - have the tools ready, maybe plan to do just 1 component of the task, make sure you've broken the work into tasks that are manageable. Make it harder to play a game by blocking the game site. Make sure you reward yourself for doing the work. Plan dinners for the next week so that instead of pulling into the drive-thru, you can think of the meal you have all planned, and how much nicer it will be.

Reduce the damage. Set a timer and play the game for 10 minutes. Instead of pulling in to the drive-thru, stop at the grocery something less unhealthy, maybe a salad.

Building habits takes time and planning and reward, but pays off dramatically.
posted by theora55 at 10:04 AM on July 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Don't know if this will help since my issue is not impulse but stress. Lets say I am doing work/studying and I have an urge to do something else or I start feeling like the task is overwhelming and I start doubting myself. I take out this sheet of paper that has stress/impulse coping statements on it. I usually go into negative talk so having these statements printed out and highlighting the statements I particularly like really helps me snap out of it. Maybe they can help you snap out of impulsive thoughts too. I know its kinda silly to carry around this paper and have it next to me when I get stressed but it helps and if I don't have it out I would not have this voice in my head so I don't care how silly it is or looks. Here are some of the statements that are on my sheet. They have been adjusted to relate to impulsive thoughts:

I've succeeded with this before.
What exactly do I have to do?
I know I can do each one of these tasks.
It's easier once I get started.
There's nothing to worry about.

I can get help if I need it.
It's ok to make mistakes. I am not the only one that makes mistakes.
I can do my best.
There's an end to it.
Keep my mind on right now, on the task at hand.
I am only afraid/distracted because I decided to be. I can decide not to be.
I've survived this and worse before.
Being active will lessen the fear/urge.

I did it!
I did all right.
Next time I won't have to be worried/tempted so much
I am able to relax away anxiety/impulsive thoughts
Its possible not to be scared/distracted. All I have to do is to stop thinking I am scared/impulsive.
posted by human_readable at 10:45 PM on July 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

Shut down the stupid routes and offer yourself sane alternatives.

If you can't stop snacking, keep zero chips and other crappy snacks in the house, but keep a large supply of healthy snacks around (nuts, cut veggies, etc.). If you can't stop drinking fattening soft drinks, keep zero-calorie drinks, not Coca Cola, around the house. (Also, put a scale in your kitchen, right in front of the fridge or snack cupboards, so you are reminded of your weight every time you step up to the plate.)

If you can't stop stupid shopping, don't take the cash and cards out with you. Put a very small amount of spending money in your pocket (less than the cost of the things you are always wasting money on) and force yourself to live on it. Get used to having limited spending resources. Find cheap or free fun.
posted by pracowity at 4:06 AM on July 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

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