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Impulsivity: Stretching the Pause

There are definitely scenarios in which the quick-responding brain is king. No one wants an ambulance driver waiting at traffic lights or a firefighter taking extra time before rescuing people from a burning building. Many people with ADHD are quick responders. That means that they can be rock stars in emergencies, the first to crack a timely joke, or willing to take a financial risk that ends up paying off in spades.

But the down side of a fast-acting ADHD brain is that immediate actions don’t always allow us the time we need to evaluate situations and make intentional choices. Quick or “impulsive” responses often come with consequences we haven’t yet foreseen.

I don’t love the word "impulsive" because its negative connotation leads us to believe that impulses are the enemy. That's just not true. All brains have impulses. The goal isn't having fewer impulses, it's altering what we do right before and right after our impulses.

The image above reflects the steps we take when responding to a trigger. First, there's the trigger. The trigger can be anything: the action of another, a visual cue, even a sensation in our own body. The trigger together with our thoughts about the trigger will generate our impulses. Our thoughts matter! They have a huge impact on the type and intensity of the impulses we experience.

After the impulse comes a pause. When we pause, we sit with that pull to action and we imagine a few steps ahead. What are the possible outcomes if we follow our impulse? What are other options? We quickly weigh the costs and benefits of our next move before we make our choice. Those with ADHD often pause less than their neurotypical peers (or may even skip the pause altogether).

The final step in this sequence is an action OR a reaction. An action is a choice after the pause. (It may even be the wrong choice, but it's a conscious decision). A reaction, on the other hand, is not a choice- it's automatic and immediate. There’s a place for reactions, but more often than not, acting with intention is going to be most beneficial to us.

Right here? Perfect place for a reaction. Automatic, immediate, and no pause. Well done, baseball dad.

Here's an example of how this could play out in real life. Let's say my mother in law looks at the dinner I've prepared for my kids, and says "Well, I'm SO glad that the kids get a vegetable tonight." (Of course my mother-in-law wouldn't say this, it's just a fictitious example). Her comment + the meaning I assign it = my trigger.

My thoughts will impact my impulse! If I think, "My mother in law is SO happy that my kids are eating vegetables“ (which is likely the way my husband would interpret this kind of comment), then I'm not going to have a strong impulse following her statement. Maybe I’ll smile, talk about my favorite vegetable, whathaveyou. But if I interpret this comment as criticism, a judgment of my parenting, or as an accusation that I'm causing scurvy in my children, the outcome will be quite different. I'll be dealing with a significantly stronger impulse.

With ADHD, it’s not just our thoughts that impact our impulses. Issues with emotional regulation, cognitive flexibility, and metacognition are correlated with ADHD can impact the intensity of our emotions, how we think about triggers, and how we generate our responses.

Challenges with emotional regulation may mean we experience amplified emotions, which can result in impulses that are more intense. Cognitive flexibility is the ability to see things from different angles. It's this skill that allows me to consider other possibilities in how I think about a given trigger. (Like considering the possibility that my mother in law's comment could have been about vegetables and not my mothering.) Metacognition enables us to think about our own thinking and it's a key player when it comes to self awareness about our thoughts.

Impulsivity is often associated with outward and dramatic actions such as losing our temper during a fight or risk taking, but impulsivity often shows up in less obvious ways (especially for those of us who have been identified as having a more inattentive presentation of ADHD). In my case, the more I've learned about my brain, the more I notice that impulsivity often plays a part in my inattention. When something pulls my attention from what I'm doing, it's hard for me to resist the impulse I feel to shift my focus to that new thing.

Here's a recent example. Last night, I was in the middle of writing an email for work when my daughter asked me to order a book she needed for class. I knew that if I waited to order it until after I sent my email, I was highly unlikely to remember to order this book. The result? I felt the impulse to stop what I was doing right then and order her book.

The trigger (her asking me to order the book) and my thoughts about the trigger (There's no way I'm going to remember this in10 minutes) made this a strong impulse for me. But last night I took a second to pause. (This isn't always the case, but I'm working on it!). I noticed that I was almost finished with my task and knew that if I switched tasks, I would lose my train of thought and take much more time to complete my email.

After my pause, I decided to resist the pull of that impulse and complete my email. It felt uncomfortable, but tolerating that discomfort is an important part of making more decisions and less reactions.

But here's another reality that many of you will understand. My original thought (I will forget this book) was not wrong. I would have forgotten to order her book if I waited and didn't support my memory in some way. So I engaged in a form of self-talk that I actually directed to my daughter. (Engaging in self talk can be important for those of us with ADHD. According to Russell Barkley, many people with ADHD don't use internal talk (self talk) to help regulate themselves, so we may need to actually talk out loud in order to do this more often).

I told my daughter (and myself), "Hey, I don't want to forget to order your literature book, but if I stop now, I'll lose my train of thought. I'm going to finish this email first. Will you text me the title so I can order it when I'm done?". This helped me solidify my pause and move forward with intention. Was she annoyed that I created an extra step for her? Probably. But supporting the brain I have means that I've learned to be realistic about what's difficult for me AND communicate that to the people in my life. That way we can all adjust our expectations accordingly.

Pausing may not come naturally to us, but our pause "muscle" can be strengthened. Just noticing our triggers and the thoughts we have about them is a huge part of improving impulsivity. As we get more consistent about noticing our triggers, it's easier to take that pause before we jump into action. (And if you're like me, it may be helpful for you to actually verbalize your thoughts in order to do this).

If your quick reactions are causing you frustration, take heart. As you build awareness about how your thoughts and feelings impact your impulses, you'll also strengthen your ability to pause. And that pause makes all the difference!


If you are interested in learning more about how to work with your unique brain to create changes that matter to you, please contact me for a free discovery call below.

*Connect with Me on Instagram @ theadhdclaritycoach and Facebook @Clarity Coaching for bite-sized coaching tips!

Interested in more resources for thriving with your unique brain? Check out my podcast: ADHD Crash Course. You can listen on my website or on Spotify, Stitcher, or Apple Podcasts.

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