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E7. Impulsivity: Working with Your Fast Brain

Welcome to ADHD Crash Course, today we're going to talk about impulsivity. And before we even touch this subject, let me just say that there are absolutely scenarios where the fast decision maker is king. If you have an emergency situation, you don't want your ambulance drivers sitting at the traffic light, you want them taking authority and moving past that light quickly! If you have firefighters, ER workers, you want them making quick decisions. Even looking at entertainment and thinking about improv comedy, the magic of that style of entertainment is it's happening in the moment, you don't have a script, and you have to be really talented and really "impulsive" to be able to pull off that kind of humor.

But today we're going to talk a little bit more about the times that impulsivity is not working for us and what we can do about it. I want to start out by saying that I don't love the term impulsivity when you're talking about how we make decisions, because it gives us impression that the impulse is the problem, the impulse is something to fear, and that's just not true. All brains have impulses. That's how they work. And when we want to focus our attention on changing a pattern of impulsivity, we're not going to focus on the impulse.

What are we going to focus on? We're going to focus on what happens before the impulse and what happens after the impulse. This is where we actually have some control; you don't have control of your impulses. That's why they're impulses. Don't misunderstand me, you have control over your action after the impulse. But if I get in an argument with my spouse and I have the impulse to throw something at him, that impulse popped up. It doesn't mean I'm going to do it, and I'm not going to burn my energy feeling horrible about the impulse.

There are things you can do right before the impulse and there's things you can do right after the impulse that help you make more intentional decisions and have less reactions. That's where we're going to spend our energy. Let's talk about the sequence of a trigger all the way to an action. First you have a trigger, something has happened in your environment. Now, your trigger, along with your thoughts about the trigger (I can't emphasize this enough) your trigger and your thoughts about the trigger end up creating your impulse. Your impulses pull that drive to action; the next step (after the impulse) is a pause.

And this is where it goes a little sideways for some of us with ADHD. The pause is where you take stock, you might think about the trigger, think about the way you thought about the trigger. If that was correct, you might think about possible actions, possible benefits/cost of your action. The Pause is not that long, usually, but it's a really important piece. For a lot of us, we don't pause, or we barely pause.

After we have that pause, then we either have an action or a reaction. An action means that I've made a decision. It could be the wrong decision, but it's intentional. I've decided I'm going to act. A reaction is not a decision.

There was this image of a man catching a baseball bat that flew out of the batter's hands during a baseball game and catching it like just a split second before it brained his child. And I'm sure if he had that decision to make, he would have decided to do that, but that reaction was not a decision. That was just a split-second response.

So I'm going to give you a fictitious example, we're going to break this down in something that we can apply to real life. Let's suppose I've made an amazing meal for my family and my mother in law comes over and she says, "Oh, I am so glad the kids get a vegetable tonight". Now, she wouldn't say that. But (if she did) that comment is my trigger, folks. It's my trigger. But just as important as my trigger, are my thoughts about the trigger. It's the meaning I attached to that.

If I'm like my husband, and the meaning I attach is, "Oh, she's happy that the kids got a vegetable.", then my impulse is probably not going to be that strong. I might smile or talk about my favorite vegetable, I don't know, it's not going to be a big impulse. If, however, I give that trigger a meaning, if I interpret it and I say, "My mothering is being criticized, my cooking is being criticized, she thinks my kids are going to get scurvy!", whatever, the meaning that I'm going to attach to that will impact the impulse that comes next.

Okay, the impulse; I already said that you really don't have a lot of control over this piece, your impulse is your impulse. Don't overthink it. But the next part in the sequence we do have control over, and that is our pause. I'm not saying it's easy. In fact, there's a couple of factors that we haven't even discussed yet that make it harder for us in terms of the impulse. A lot of people with ADHD struggle with emotional regulation, that means that we have kind of an amplified experience of our emotions and that obviously will amplify our impulses.

There are two other factors that might come into play when we're thinking about our thoughts and when we're taking some time in that pause. One is that cognitive flexibility can be a difficult thing for some ADHD brains; that's our ability to see things from different angles, our ability to be flexible with our thinking, and it's the ability that I'm going to lean on if I'm going to consider the possibility that my mother in law was talking about vegetables, not my mothering.

Right? My interpretation could have been wrong in that situation. There's also the possibility that some of us struggle with metacognition, that's an executive functioning skill that is basically "thinking about your thinking". It's the heart of self-awareness. It's recognizing what's going on with your thoughts. So, if we struggle, being aware, and being conscientious of that thought step might be tough. But don't worry, there's stuff we can do about this.

So where do we start? Where do we start with what we can do about impulsivity? It starts with noticing, just noticing our triggers, and especially the thoughts we have about them: it's huge. Even if you respond impulsively, just being able to look at the situation and say, "Ah, the vegetable comment, I kind of flipped out. Alright, noted. That's how that went down". My next suggestion is to do whatever you need to do to dwell in the pause a little bit longer.

So what do I mean by that? I'm going to give you an example from my own life, when my husband and I were first married, we would have evenings where we would just sit around and have deep thoughts and talk. We don't have a lot of deep thoughts anymore, because we have four children, but back then we did. Clint is a very intentional responder, like he's even like an exaggerated example of the person who pauses and take stock. That was such a different rhythm than the way I communicated, and I would actually, (in order to not interrupt him, do not tell him, I'm telling you this), I would have to count some times in my head, "How long is it going to take him to answer this?" And sometimes I'd be like, "are you...are we even still talking?" Was he on to something else? But we were still talking, and he would respond. But in order for me to stay in the pause, I actually had to do a little strategy that might seem quirky to some of you, and that's okay. You don't have to count if you don't need to, I did.

Okay, the next thing I'm going to suggest, I want you to at least, consider doing this: start talking out loud to yourself. I don't mean do it all the time, do it in public, don't get people concerned around you. But people with ADHD don't tend to have the internal dialogue that a lot of typical brains have. I will tell you, I'm included in this group of people that is are "external processors". A lot of times I don't know what I'm saying until I'm actually saying it, which might sound odd to somebody who does not have this brain type. But that's just the way it is. So if I want to actually slow down and think, sometimes I have to talk out loud.

Now I know some of you don't consider yourselves impulsive because you don't feel like blowing up about vegetable comments or throwing something at your husband, but impulsivity shows up in a ton of different ways; impulsivity can show up as inattentiveness. This is how it shows up for me often. I'm going to give you an example that just happened last night, a real life example. I was working on an email for a client and my daughter comes in the room and she says "Oh Mom, I need you to order this book on off Amazon for my lit class." So, that comment is my trigger and my thoughts about that trigger were, "Oh, I should stop this email, because there's no way I'm going to remember that by the time I'm done with this email, I better do it now.: But then I had to pause, and just take stock. I thought," You know what, I'm three fourths of the way done with this email, if I stop now, I'm going to have to completely get my train of thought back later, it's going to take me much longer later. And I don't think it's going to be helpful to me."

But another factor (in this) is that my thought about the trigger was not wrong. I will, I know from experience, I will forget to order the lit book if I wait. S what I did was this "talking to myself" that I was talking about before, I actually directed my self talk to my daughter, I said, "Oh, I am working on this email, I do need to finish it. I don't want to stop now because I really want to complete my thought, but I don't want to forget your book, so text me your book title. And that way, when I pick up my phone, I'll have it in front of me." So that's an example of the self talk that I was referring to. It doesn't have to be like wandering around the grocery store disoriented and chatting to yourself, it's this little extra cue that you're saying out loud, because a lot of us process information this way. We're external processors.

Okay, wrapping up our chat on impulsivity. When we want to influence impulses, when we want to influence our tendency to be impulsive, it starts with noticing. We can't really make any changes that we don't notice. So, notice your triggers, notice how you think about your triggers, notice the impulse that follows. We also talked about stretching out the pause in whatever way makes sense to you.

If you have to count in your head, or if you have to speak out loud, or if you have to do any other thing that helps you extend that time so you can make a decision and not a reaction, do it, because this will benefit you.


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1 Comment

Okay. So what's the point of a "podcast" if I have to read it? Your "8 minute read" is 30 minutes for me. Or maybe this is a Blog and the Podcast is coming I don't know. The topics seem interesting, but the reading is a real drawback...

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