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3 Tactics to Tap the Brakes on Impulsivity

Last week, we investigated at length the root and danger of impulsiveness. This week, we’ll delve into what we can do to tame it. 

Of all of ADHD’s symptoms, impulsiveness is the most dangerous. It can lead to accidental injury, death, sexually transmitted disease, drug addiction, and suicide. 

Although you may personally not be experiencing the above attributes, surely, you have impulsively gotten into a fight or argument with a family member, friend, manager, or co-worker–not to mention jumped into a project, situation, or fiasco that, had you been more patient, could have been avoided. 

So how do we tap the brakes on impulsiveness?

I’d like to talk about a Taoist or Buddhist principle called the action of non-action.

In the United States, non-action is often seen as laziness. In our culture, the emphasis is usually placed on ‘doing something.’

Doing nothing, on the other hand, could be associated with idleness. However, I would like to challenge that assumption and encourage you to think deeply into this matter.

Non-action is an action. What does that mean? For me, it means that doing nothing can be incredibly difficult and may require more self-control and strength than doing something. We need to rethink the idea that action is correct and doing nothing is a failure. 

Let’s imagine a car cuts you off on the highway. That SOB didn’t even use his blinker! What do you do? Your adrenaline is surging. You want revenge. You want to pull up next to him and give him the finger. You want to tailgate him. You want him to learn to drive. You want to teach him a lesson. If you were impulsive, you might do one of those actions. And how would it end? How would that make the situation better? Would flipping off this driver really teach him to drive? Or could this already crazy driver do something even more erratic, endangering you and the other drivers on the highway even more?

Now imagine that you get cut off. Your adrenaline surges. You want to teach the other driver a lesson, but you manage to control your emotions. You just breathe. You take your foot off the gas, giving the car in front of you more space. You watch to see what it will do next. You are ready in case it does anything more dangerous.

This is an example of the action of non-action. From the outside it looks as if you did nothing, but is that really true?

Now imagine your sibling insults you, but instead of escalating the fight, you manage to keep quiet, change the subject, or maybe even agree with them.

You see an investment opportunity that looks great, but instead of jumping in, you decide to wait on it, look at your funds, and study the opportunity more.

Your spouse is having trouble with a friend. You want to jump in and ‘fix’ the situation. Instead, you support your spouse by listening to him or her as he or she deals with it.  

Maybe you are now telling yourself, “Yes, I understand non-action is beneficial, but how can I do it?”

Here are three tactics to try out.

1. Meditation

What better way to practice the action of non-action than by just sitting still for ten minutes and focusing on your breath?

If doing nothing is laziness, why is it so hard to just sit and do nothing?

In meditation you will train yourself to feel emotions, but not act on them. You will also have the experience of watching emotions come and go.

Hopefully, it will give you some distance between you and your impulses, so that you will have a gap between feeling something and acting on it. Meditating consistently may allow you to begin to choose whether or not to follow or act on an impulse.

2. Make a Plan

Sit down and begin writing about various situations in which your impulsiveness got you into trouble. When did you get angry and say something you regretted? When did you jump into an opportunity that turned into a time and energy sucking fiasco?

Although we often feel as if our impulsive outbursts are random, often when  we sit and list them out we will see patterns.

What triggers you? Is it driving? Is it when you feel disrespected or that someone has crossed your boundaries? What does that disrespect look like?

When I look at my own life, I’ve been losing my temper and saying things I regret when I feel disrespected. 

I most often feel disrespected when someone asks me for advice and then doesn’t pay attention to the answer.

Now, there are many other cases when my impulses get me in trouble, but for now let’s focus on the above example. Let’s make a plan, so that the next time I enter this situation I won’t be flying blind. I’ll have some idea about what I should do. I’ll hopefully be ready.

We can use a sentence frame to do this:

When …, then I will….

When someone asks me for advice, but then does not pay attention to the answer, then I will do nothing, allow some silence into the situation. Then I will say, “Did I answer your question?”

Now, this solution might not work, but at least I won’t be losing my cool. I just need to remind myself when someone asks me for advice, that they may not actually pay attention. I need to be prepared.

3. Train

I am a firm believer that human beings, even those with ADHD, can be trained through repetition.

This repetition could come about in the real world. For example, every day my son asks me for help or advice and he will often not pay attention to what I say, so I could take advantage of this situation to train myself.

Another way to train is by creating the situation alone or with a partner. I could ask my spouse to ask me for advice about something and then not pay attention to the answer.

I could have her repeat this activity with me 15 times in 30 minutes. I would repeat my chosen response. The idea is that I want the calm response that ends in the phrase, “Did I answer your question?” to be automatic

You might feel a little crazy to ask someone to trigger you repeatedly for an extended period of time–but what is crazier: rehearsing a difficult situation until you can deal with it calmly, or reacting to your (worst) impulses in a difficult situations, possibly endangering your key relationships, your job, and even your personal safety?

The final benefit of deciding to train a difficult situation in the moment is that turning this situation into training already begins to diffuse it. I already gave the example above about my son asking me for advice. Instead of already getting angry because I’m thinking that he won’t pay attention to the answer, I think, ‘Oh good, I get a chance to practice my patience and my prepared response.’

Try it out! You have nothing to lose. Maybe there is a person that you dread encountering in the office. Can you flip this situation on its head and use this person’s negative qualities to help you train in yourself a quality you wish to develop, such as patience?

In short, impulsiveness is a danger to our personal and professional lives. Action is often overrated as a solution to problems. Non-action is not the same as laziness or idleness, but a powerful tactic in overcoming many of life’s difficulties. 

There are many ways to tame impulsiveness. If you do not have any of your own tactics, try out meditating for 10 minutes a day (just sitting in a dignified position and focusing on your breathing), making a plan (your random impulsive outbursts probably aren’t that random once you analyze your personal triggers), training (it is possible to teach yourself to react differently to triggering situations through repetition).

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