bipolar parent

How and Why to Learn Impulse Control


Dug, from Disney’s Up
Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Do you feel like Dug, the talking dog from Disney’s Up?

Are you constantly drawn to new and shiny things and find your attention scattered, with your brain unable to focus on what you need to get done? Do you constantly start projects you never finish, leaving them lying around the house? Do you make irrational purchases like expensive new shoes when your month’s money has already been spoken for?

Then you might have a problem with impulse control.

As a woman with bipolar disorder, a mental illness that’s marked by impulsivity just like ADHD, I constantly struggle to not give in to my impulses.

Just this morning, when my alarm blared at 7:30am, I told myself, “I can go back to bed. I won’t miss my family’s 8am Bible study, something I really want to go to.”

What happened next is probably predictable: I went back to bed, fell asleep, and missed the Bible study, disappointing my family and reaffirming to them that I am not someone they can trust to reliably show up in the mornings.

If I can’t show up in the mornings, I clearly can’t show up at other times (or so the thinking rightfully goes), so giving into that one impulse broke my family’s trust in me in all situations.

You’d think that with those consequences, I’d have an easier time resisting the impulse to go back to bed in the moment. But I don’t.

What is Impulse Control?

According to my therapist, impulse control is the ability to forecast future consequences, step back, and then not give into the hasty decision your mind urges you to make.

One of the diagnostic criteria for bipolar mania is the complete inability to look into the future and recognize when decisions are bad. That’s why people suffering manic or hypomanic episodes often engage in dangerous behaviors like excessive spending or engaging in high-risk sex.

How to Build Impulse Control

In order to build my family’s trust back up in me, especially that of my frequently (and rightfully) disappointed husband, my therapist told me I need to prove myself reliable and learn to counteract my hasty decisions.

She said I need to learn to forecast the future, and slow down enough to reflect on what I’m doing in the moment, and with practice, stop giving into the impulses based on the well-thought-out consequences.

But how can I do that? How can you do that? Here are 3 tips to build much-needed impulse control.

Tip #1: Make a List

One of the best ways to train yourself to look into the future in the moment is to look into the future before you’re in that moment.

Making a list of the times you’re drawn to be impulsive is a tip that may help you prepare to step back in those times and think about your decisions.

For example, I am impulsive during the following times:

Waking up “early” in the morning for Bible studyI go back to bedI disappoint my family and show them that I am unreliable
Faced with an onerous task I don’t want to do, like studyingI trawl the internetI don’t learn the material I need to learn to pass my graduate school classes, impacting my career
Intending to eat 1/3 of a pint of chocolate ice creamI eat the whole pintI gain weight, impacting my health and waistline
Bored while watching my 4-year-old daughterRather than engaging her, I play on my phoneI show her that she is less important to me than my electronics time
Visiting a craft storeI buy excessive amounts of supplies for projects I’ll never completeI run out of storage space for craft supplies, I waste money, and the unfinished projects weigh on my mind

This is an inconclusive list; there’s a number of different situations that I am impulsive in that have terrible consequences that I do not consider. Just making that list out, I’m recognizing that my impulsivity is a huge, damning problem.

Not only is my lack of impulse control bad for my family, the most important part of my life, it’s bad for my wallet, my body, my future counseling career, my house, and my self-esteem.

If I can’t control myself, not only is my family disappointed in me, but I am, too. And often times after a hasty decision, I’m left wondering what happened.

No more. I’m making my list and recognizing when I’ve messed up in the past so I can figure out what decisions to make in the future.

Make your list today.

Now that you’ve identified where you struggle with impulse control, here’s what to do when you have your list:

  1. Put a finger over your mouth, as if you’re considering about what to say. This physical trigger will remind you of your list.
  2. Take a deep breath and tell yourself, “I need to think. What are the consequences to this behavior?”
  3. Step back and think through your decisions before you make them. This will get easier with practice.

The more you think through consequences, the easier it will be for you to not act on your impulses. Use your list to project what will happen in the future.

Tip #2: Think About Rewards to Motivate Yourself

Operant learning is a form of associative learning based on positive and negative reinforcement. The negative reinforcement, or punisher, is forecasting the future and determining that you do not want the negative consequences.

But what about times when you have to motivate yourself to get things done?

Many adults with bipolar disorder, myself included, are “time blind”; we forget the purpose of our tasks, so we quit when things get hard.

Sometimes imagining the negative consequences (the stick, or negative reinforcement) is not enough. Sometimes we need positive reinforcement (a carrot).

So when you’re faced with a task or project you have no desire to see through, ask yourself, “What will I feel when I finish this project?” You may feel happiness, a sense of accomplishment, and/or pride. You may feel any number of positive emotions, including relief.

Whatever you’ll feel, try hard to feel the emotion in the moment. If you can feel the happiness you will feel when your project is done, then you’ll start to associate good feelings with the project and completing it.

So every time you sit down to work on the project, feel that happiness. This positive reinforcement may see you through.

Tip #3: Conquer that Sense of Urgency

If you’re anything like me, you’re faced with a sense of urgency. My tasks have to be done right then, no matter what my current project is. They must.

Throughout the day, I take on more than I can handle and I try to accomplish everything at once. I have difficulty prioritizing and often get distracted by newer, shinier tasks.

For example, I am a moderator of a Discord server for a literary community. When a task–like cataloguing disciplinary actions taken against unruly server members for our records–comes sailing down the pipeline, I’m often tempted to drop everything and get those specific tasks done.

But this is a mistake. In the case of the record-keeping, the server has gone without those records up until this point; we can wait a bit longer. I have difficulties with thinking every task is important and needs done immediately.

So to combat this, I’ve started making specific, segregated to-do lists that I can look over and prioritize at my leisure.

Writing down the task so I won’t forget about it–and then setting the task aside for more important ones in the moment–works for me. That’s actually a principle in David Allen’s Get Things Done (GTD) system: get everything out of your head by writing everything down, no matter how small and mundane.

I use the Microsoft OneNote app to type in tasks under specific headings like Schedule, School, Fics & Server, Misc, and Should Do Soon. OneNote is convenient because it’s on my phone; I can log the task as soon as I think of it and then put my phone back into my pocket, setting the task aside.

Not everything needs done right away. You can take a breath or two before jumping into the next task. Prioritizing is difficult, but if you want to control your impulses, you need to conquer that sense of urgency.

Let’s Recap

Controlling your impulses may sound like an impossible task. But in reality, the meat and potatoes of it is making a series of decisions that are objectively better for you by thinking them through.

This sounds challenging, and it is. But with practice, you’ll be able to easily forecast the future and make note of consequences before you make a hasty decision based on emotional impulses.

You can start to tame your impulses by making a list, thinking of motivational rewards, and conquering that sense of urgency.

I wish you well in your journey.

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