How Is Your Impulse Control These Days?

Labrador retriever looks at the food on the table.

I recently lost my temper, which is uncharacteristic of me and happens rarely. It took me off guard! That morning, I decided to eat my breakfast outside to get some fresh air. I placed my eggs-and toast-laden plate on the porch table and turned my back just for a couple seconds. By then, our large puppy was up on the table trying to reach the food. This happened to be something we’ve been working on with her. I saw a red! How dare she! And I snapped, yelling and smacked her lightly on the nose. I’m don’t believe in hitting animals or kids, so I was rather appalled at my behavior.

I started reflecting. Why was I instantly volatile over something so minor, so not worthy of my strong reaction? Then I asked myself, how much did my lack of impulse control in that moment have to do with the current world situation? I think the answer is, a lot!

Along with many other journalists and columnists, I have written a great deal about how stressed we are as a result of the pandemic, the violence we are seeing in the news over racial injustices, the issues around police brutality and now with all that happened with the protesters at the Capitol building. One of the outcomes of being under constant stress and feeling help-less, scared and uncertain about the future is a loss of some of our basic abilities to control our emotions. We like to think of ourselves as in control and therefore civilized. When we are in a relatively calm state, we can be these things. But in these days and times—not so much!

When we are less impulsive, it means that we are operating in a higher level in our brain, somewhere in our cortex. When we are operating from this part of our brain, we can remain relatively calm and think rationally about things. When our brain perceives danger and threat, it shifts into lower brain areas allowing us to instantaneously react in order to protect ourselves. Being in this lower brain area also means we are functioning from the parts of our brain that involve emotionality, so it is understandable how quickly a person can go off the rails as a result of experiencing chronic toxic stress.

We also are witnesses to so much that is highly emotional and involves people being out of control. Moods and emotions can be contagious. In addition to worrying about contracting the virus, maybe we need to put some attention on not catching emotional volatility from what we see happening all around us. Seeing others in a state of impulsivity can shift our brain into a lower, highly emotional and reactive place.

Self care - white chalk handwriting on a blackboard with a cup of coffee

While there isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent an instantaneous emotional outburst, there are things we can do to help ourselves move back to functioning in our upper brain areas. Here are a few ideas:

  • If and when you lose control, be kind to yourself. Know that these momentary outbursts are reasonable and understandable.
  • Take time to notice how agitated you are feeling. If your levels are pretty high, take a few moments to do those things that are calming for you: drink cold water, do slow and deep breathing, take a walk or otherwise exercise to get rid of some of your excess energy, light scented candles, use essential oils or whatever else calms you.
  • Talk with others about how upset you are feeling, what your concerns and fears are, what you are struggling with. The old adage, misery loves company, has some truth to it. We need to be able to come together and share how we are feeling in order to gain better control over those feelings.
  • Find ways to make amends when you do lose control. It is important for the other person (or animal!), for you and for your relationship to make the necessary repairs. Ask for forgiveness and invite the other person to help you notice when you are getting upset, agitated and might need to pause in order to get your cortex back online.
  • Be kind and available to others who are also struggling with their own issues around impulse control.

To take my own advice, I appreciate that my momentary lapse of control makes sense, that no serious damage was done, that I need to do those things that help me return to a better state of calm and that I can find some ways to make amends. In my case, I think an extra-long walk with the puppy might be a good idea for both of us.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Have you noticed that you are more impulsive these days? What are some of the things you have said or done that are uncharacteristic of you?
  2. How aware are you of being, or can you be in an upper brain state in order to reduce impulsivity?
  3. How can respond to your impulsivity in ways that are kind and compassionate?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute