Feeling Impulsive? Here’s How To Retrain The Brain

Feeling Impulsive? Here’s How To Retrain The Brain

At some point in our lives, we’ve all met a slice of pizza we simply couldn’t resist. Or found ourselves walking out of a shop with that shiny new phone we promised we were only going to look at. And while succumbing to an extra helping of our favorite food or treating ourselves from time to time isn’t a bad thing, they have the potential to lead to more impulsive behaviors.

Impulsive behavior is when we act on a sudden urge without thinking it through. On the surface, this sounds like a bad thing, but impulsive behavior and negative consequences are not tied together. In fact, impulses have roots in our primal past. The problem arises when these impulse-based decisions become a pattern or repeatedly go against our best interest.

Sometimes these behaviors can be a symptom of an underlying mental illness or require professional intervention. However, for the most part, these behaviors are well within our capabilities to retrain.

Why do we act impulsively?

Impulses are an integral part of our brain’s biochemical response system and involve multiple areas of our brain. When we engage in these behaviors, they often feel out of our control, but they are being triggered for specific reasons. They aid in situations that require a swift response or when our conscious mind does not have enough material information to make a decision.

To look at it from an evolutionary perspective, seeing unprotected food is a situation we needed to act upon quickly. By grabbing it without thinking about the potential consequences means we didn’t lose the opportunity to eat. However, because these processes are tied to our dopamine receptors, the thing meant to keep us alive can be triggered by our modern signals. And those can be damaging.

Take sugar as an example. Our ancestors would seek out sweet foods like berries to provide the very essential glucose required for energy. Gorging on a berry bush wouldn’t be a long-term problem because the berries were in limited supply and only available seasonally. But today, we can find sugar whenever we want. Giving in to this impulse with increased frequency will lead to multiple health problems our ancestors would never have faced.

Impulses can also be attributed to behaviors we may label risky or thrill-seeking. And there’s science to back this data up. Risk-taking behavior led to our survival in many cases. But this behavior in modern times can lead to unhealthy habits, even leading to addiction in extreme cases.

However, impulse control can often be a symptom and not a cause. It’s important to understand that there are many conditions that can lead to impulsivity. ADD, ADHD, anxiety, PTSD, and chronic stress can all have demonstrated impulse behaviors. In these cases, as well as with addiction in any form, medical attention or specialized therapy is most often necessary.

Managing our impulses

Because impulses are such an integral part of our brain functionality, there’s no way we’re going to suppress them all the time. But it is possible to establish control so that when it comes to getting our day-to-day impulses, they become manageable and even beneficial for us.

Practice Awareness 

The first step to practicing awareness is identifying our patterns. If we struggle with impulsive shopping, we need to figure out when we’re engaging in this behavior.

Are we tired? Stressed? Do we tend to impulse shop when we fight with our spouse or when we’re on deadline for work? Maybe our impulsive behavior is overeating, or specifically craving sweets. Whatever behavior we’re attempting to get under control, we need to be methodical and organized in our awareness. Keep receipts, write down every time we engage in the behavior, noting emotions and locations. The more detailed we are, the more likely we will be able to find our patterns, and take steps to break them.

Take precautions

Once we know what kind of action we’re performing on impulse, we can create strategies to work around them.

When possible, avoid being in situations that can trigger such behavior. This does not work everywhere, but make it a habit to avoid whenever the situation permits. If shopping is our trigger, avoid going to all unnecessary shops. When we have to go to grocery stores, take a list and only go when we’re full, well-rested and aren’t in a rush. Even going with a limited amount of cash, leaving credit cards at home can force us to be vigilant and less susceptible to impulse. If we stop at a specific sweet shop on the way home from work, trying different routes to avoid that shop can be helpful in breaking the pattern.

Some impulses aren’t as clear cut. When we’re dealing with emotional impulsivity, the triggers can be more difficult to spot, especially because when we need to be taking note of the behavior, we’re often in the midst of the emotion. However, even here, making note after the fact while taking the time to evaluate what caused it can be beneficial in recognizing the pattern in the future.

Delay response time deliberately

Make it a habit to delay response time whenever possible. Counting to ten before grabbing that bag of treats or wanting to try on that trendy outfit can often be enough of a break in our thinking to disrupt our impulsive behavior. Taking this much-needed step can also help us be mindful of feeling the impulse without acting on it.

If we need to take longer, go for a walk around the office, or the block. Take a lunch break and go someplace where we can be meditative and quiet. Practicing this regularly will help retrain our brain into deliberate processing rather than acting on an unconscious impulse.

Create a set of questions

Often we act impulsively because we lose sight of our larger goals and values. Creating a personal reminder system can help with that.

Create a few questions that we can ask whenever faced with any situation. It can go something like, “Is this going to interfere with my health?” or “Is this going to benefit me in the long run?”. Write these questions down and keep them in a visible location. That way we can be reminded to ask these questions when we recognize an impulse-trigger situation.

Take the time to prepare in-depth answers and tie these answers in with our greater goal. Do we want to lose weight? Save money? Be less emotional within our personal or professional relationships? Write the answers down and refer to them whenever we struggle with the impulsive behavior.

Exercise and meditate

Lifestyle factors can have a huge impact on how much control we have over our minds. By keeping our body and mind fit, we can find newer, healthier behaviors to give us the dopamine release impulsive behaviors provide.

Exercise helps burn off excess energy. When we’re overstimulated and under-exercised, we’re more likely to react more.  Exercise also increases dopamine, along with other happy hormones while decreasing stress hormones. Meditation, on the other hand, gives us a way to channel that energy rather than allow it to channel us.

Together they act as a protective mechanism to bring our mind back on track when it starts to give in to impulse. The more consistent we are in these habits, the better we will become at controlling our behaviors.

Get feedback

It can be difficult to break behavioral patterns without help. By turning to someone we trust, they can gently point out what they observe. Maybe they notice a trigger we don’t see. Or can help us be aware of when we’re starting to engage in that behavior.

They can also help remind us to be kind to ourselves and to be patient. We aren’t going to change our behavioral patterns in a day or even a week. When we feel down, they can help remind us of our progress and help keep us on track when we need it most.

Of course, if our impulsivity is a symptom of a greater problem, asking for help from a healthcare professional can be instrumental in helping eliminate these unwanted behaviors.


A large part of what distinguishes the human species from others is that we learned to control our impulses. This quality allowed us to look longer in the future, sacrifice short-term gratifications for long-term gains, and build the highly complex and layered social structures we live in today.

Remember, to feel an impulse is natural and deeply rooted in our brain. However, we have the choice of whether to act on them or not. Even if impulsive behaviors are creating problems today, we have a choice to make it better.

Free 3-Part Brain Training by Jim Kwik:

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