Man with glasses looks at reflection out of window

"Take a moment to notice what is happening with you, and within you."

As we navigate the twists and turns of life, we can get the sudden urge to act or react in certain ways. Our impulses are often tied to our survival instincts, and though they can sometimes save our lives, it’s not unusual for them to be more defensive or aggressive than called for by the situation we’re in.

Managing these impulses is hard. Our brains quickly learn that certain actions can have fairly immediate consequences (e.g., feeling less vulnerable after acting out angrily), so we tend to repeat these actions automatically in similar situations.

When it comes to our mental health, impulsive behaviour can put us in danger of acting on suicidal thoughts or hurting ourselves while in pain, pushing others away, or isolating ourselves to escape a stressful situation.

An angry outburst is a common example of how our impulses can take over, but there are many ways impulsive behaviours can express themselves.

For example:

  • A guy may feel lonely and, instead of reaching out to a close friend, he grabs a bottle of alcohol to drink recklessly to rid himself of the feeling.
  • Or he may feel lost in life, and instead of checking in with himself (or a therapist) about what this feeling tells him, he makes rash decisions about his life (e.g., quits a job he likes).
  • Another way of being impulsive is to drive way over the speed limit to ‘burn off’ stress, instead of applying necessary caution to keep himself and others around him safe.
  • Commonly, a guy may feel ashamed or put down in a social situation and impulsively tell the other person to piss off, instead of asserting himself in a more appropriate way.

The bottom line is that impulsive behaviour can hurt oneself or others, and because of this, it’s really important to have some strategies in place to help prevent impulsivity rearing its ugly head.

Below are two strategies a guy can use to get the upper hand on impulsivity.

1. Use the STOP technique in the heat of the moment

In an urgent situation, one thing a guy can do to prevent impulsive behaviour from occurring is to use the STOP technique. STOP means, S=Stop, T=Take a step back, O=Observe, P=Proceed mindfully.

Stop:

  • Before you act out, tell yourself aloud or silently in your head: “STOP”.

Take a step back:

  • Move away from the situation. Get out of the bar into the fresh air. Distance yourself from the group that irritates you. If you are driving, pull over your vehicle.

Observe:

  • Take a moment to notice what is happening with you, and within you. Don’t try to come up with solutions or dissect the situation – just stay calm as you tune into what you’re feeling. Often, the feelings (or other things like tense muscles) we observe in ourselves can be used in the future to STOP even earlier, before we get too worked up.
  • If you’re with a friend, you can try to describe what is coming up for you.
  • For example, “I just need a minute to chill. When that guy spilled his drink on me, I was about to deck him. Thanks for coming outside with me for a second so I can cool down instead. I noticed my jaw feeling tight and my hands started to clench, so I had to get out of there before I did something I regretted. Do you remember that time last year when I got into a fight at that bar on the south side? This reminded me of that right away and I didn’t want a repeat of that shit-show.”

Proceed mindfully:

  • Take the high road. This may involve not going back into the situation, or engaging in some other activity, or sharing what you’re feeling with a friend. Be intentional with your action to gain a sense of control – which is the opposite of impulsivity.

2. Strengthen your emotional muscle to prevent impulsive behaviour from happening in the future

Similar to when a guy builds his physical muscles that can help prevent injuries from occurring, we need to work hard to build our emotional muscle if we want to prevent impulsive behaviour from happening in the future. We can do this in psychotherapy where a therapist can help and coach us, and we can also strengthen it ourselves.

  • The first step a guy should take is to treat any illnesses or injuries he might have, while also following a healthy diet, avoiding drugs, having good sleep hygiene, and being physically active. Our brain and body are intimately connected, with each affecting the other, so engaging in these healthy physical habits will help reduce stress on our minds and allow us to build the groundwork for developing a strong emotional muscle.
  • The next step (which can occur at the same time as the step above) is to engage in psychotherapy in which we learn to recognize warning signs and triggers in social situations that tend to ‘set us off’, develop an understanding of why we react to these triggers, and develop new ways of responding adaptively to these situations. All of this is about strengthening our emotional muscle.

While it can be a challenge, managing and overcoming impulsive behaviour is do-able. Working with a therapist while also implementing the STOP technique in tense situations is key to developing a greater sense of control over ourselves. And by doing so, we gain a greater sense of pride in ourselves.


Guest Author:

Dr. Ueli Kramer is a psychotherapy researcher and clinical psychotherapist in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Lausanne, Switzerland.

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