Learning to Manage Impulses Effectively

By: Other | January 27, 2017

Written by Kelly Anderson, Ph.D.

Many people have difficulty controlling their impulses. At one time or another, we may act on urges to stay home from work on a rainy day or raise an angry voice in disagreement. Such impulses arise daily. For some, they come throughout the day; for others, such feelings come out of the blue. Either way, impulsivity can arise with little or no warning and can feel uncontrollable.

The Action Urge

The desire to act on a particular action when experiencing an emotion is called an action urge. Action urges are often coupled with impulsive behaviors that are not always healthy or useful in one’s life.

For example, in mild situations, an action urge might manifest as the desire to stay up late watching TV, even though a struggle with fatigue will occur the following day. In more extreme situations, an action urge can prompt self-harming behaviors, especially when experiencing emotional pain. Regardless of the situation, out-of-control emotions or behaviors can give rise to discomfort and create potential problems going forward.

If we observe young children, we can see their difficulty in regulating emotions. Not acting on those emotions is even more difficult. For example, a child may throw a tantrum in the store when parents refuse to buy them toys or treats. As children, the brain systems required to regulate impulses are not yet in place and do not become fully developed until well into young adulthood (usually in the early 20s). Although those brain systems develop as we age, it is unusual to be taught skills to control impulses or regulate emotions. The absence of such skills may lead to emotional suffering and, for many, problematic behaviors that decrease quality of life.

The following skills can help to reduce the feeling of urgency that comes with an emotion or impulse. Try a few of the skills below the next time you would like to reduce an action urge or impulsive behavior:

Urge Surfing

When difficult or intense emotions arise, we can feel compelled to act on that emotion immediately – often leading to problematic behaviors. Emotions are powerful. They create the feeling of urgency. Learning to sit through these emotions can reduce the likelihood of negative actions.

Urge surfing is what it sounds like: Going with the flow of an urge or emotion the same way you would surf on a wave in the ocean. You allow the emotion to swell and ebb while intentionally choosing not to act on that emotion, especially if actions now can cause problems later. This isn’t always easy. Let your mind visualize your staying afloat as the emotion recedes. This refocuses your mind away from the destructive action.

Playing the Tape Through

This strategy helps to slow down the thought process and to think through potential outcomes of an action. For example, after a bad day, you may feel the urge to overindulge at happy hour with friends on a weeknight – because it feels good at the moment. Taking another moment to think about what may happen next, or “playing the tape through” to the end, can help you choose the option that works best. While happy hour with friends may provide momentary satisfaction, a late night with over-drinking and poor sleep may lead to feeling worse the next day. Such consequences can then impact aspects at work causing further stress.

Take time to think about longer-term consequences. “Play the tape through” to decide which choices may work best.


Practice mindfulness on a regular basis. Mindfulness can increase awareness of your emotions. Become more familiar with your emotions and learn your triggers. Doing so can both prepare you and help you avoid situations that can lead to difficult emotions resulting in action urges.

If you’re new to mindfulness these blogs may help you learn a few strategies:

Relaxation Exercises

Relaxation exercises can help to reduce or take the edge off of an emotion, thereby decreasing the likelihood of an unwanted action urge. The following offers several relaxation exercises that you may like to try:

It’s important to remember that emotions do not last forever. All emotions eventually subside despite a feeling of intensity and difficulty in the moment. Practicing a few of the skills above could allow a feeling of control and may prevent problematic behaviors. If you experience negative action urges or impulsive behaviors, consider also meeting with a professional therapist. The Psychologists at Therapy Changes are specially trained in assist you in managing impulses and are here to help.


Image: Michael Matti on flickr and reproduced under Creative Commons 2.0

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