Pressing the Pause Button

Have you ever said or done something that felt like it served you in the moment but horrified you later? Chances are, you were led on by impulsivity. It’s a trait many of us have, at least in certain circumstances. It’s hard to keep from buying chocolate when you’re in the candy aisle of the grocery store, and it’s equally as challenging to hold yourself back from sending an impulsive email. But when you do fall down the rabbit hole of impulsivity, it can feel terrible. Often, you find yourself ashamed and ruminating on your regrets. It’s a loop and it’s closely related to the craving cycle, which causes you to give in to the urge to drink. 

Impulsivity can be defined as a “rash response in situations where a considerate response is more appropriate” and often leads to acting in the spur of the moment, not focusing on the task at hand, and not planning or thinking carefully. When you break it down at the biological level, impulsivity involves failing to inhibit a potentially risky impulse. From a cognitive perspective, it is the inability to inhibit behavioural impulses and thoughts. One of the most significant challenges about impulsive tendencies is that the individual who experiences impulsivity cannot evaluate the consequences for themselves or others. They may not even know that they are acting impulsively because impulsivity has a way of tricking you into thinking that you are taking the most essential action. 

There are three components of impulse: 

  1. Motor (action without thinking) 
  2. Cognitive (quick cognitive decision making)
  3. Non-planning (decrease in orientation toward future factors)

It’s essential to know how to reign in impulsivity to avoid risky and negative outcomes. That’s where the pause button comes in. The pause button is just as it sounds—a break from stimulus. You might go for a walk, lie down and engage in box breathing, turn off your devices, or take some time before you take action or respond. It gives you the space you need to evaluate, reflect, and decompress before reacting. 

The pause button is most effective when you engrain it into your reaction system as a pattern. This means that each time you are driven to action, you remind yourself to take an intentional pause, and over time, this behaviour becomes automatic. This is especially useful when it comes to drinking. Impulsivity is a significant risk factor for initiating and continuing alcohol use. It can be provoked by acute intoxication as well as long-term substance use. Studies have shown that highly impulsive individuals use alcohol to regulate negative emotional states. This is not surprising since the brain regions of impulsive behaviours and emotional experiences overlap. When you take a pause, you can identify and label your emotion. It allows you to make a different and healthier decision. In other words, you get ahead of the emotion and the drive to action. When you take a pause, it’s an opportunity to identify your emotions or how you’re feeling. Oftentimes, our mood can indicate our behaviours and it’s another way to take action in our journey to change. 

This week, commit to using the pause button. When you get heated and feel the drive to act as your craving system kicks in, commit to taking a small break. You can walk around the house, hold a plank, close your eyes, or throw a toy for the dog for ten minutes. Interrupting your impulsive mental state is often enough to slow you down, allow you to reassess, and change your course. It can be challenging, but it is also helpful to check in with a family member, friend, or colleague about how they perceive your impulsivity. An outside perspective can be the best real-time input on your emotional and cognitive state. As well, your confidante can play the role of an accountability partner and keep you on track. Impulsivity is alluring at the moment, but it has painful aftermath. The pause button can give you the grace you need to show up as your best self.

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