Skip to content

    Mental Health Center

    Font Size
    A
    A
    A

    Got Impulse Control?

    People who lack self control can get into all sorts of trouble. Here's how to curb your urges.
    By
    WebMD Magazine

    Alison Zollars Arthur knows better. As the owner of a skin and body wellness center, the 44-year-old Houston resident regularly counsels her clients about the importance of a healthy diet. But too often, she pigs out on fast food, salty snacks, and wine.

    "If I have one glass of wine, I will have more," she says. "The voice saying, 'You really shouldn't,' shuts down, and I can do anything I want to."

    WebMD the Magazine Now Available Online

    The enormous popularity of WebMD the Magazine – previously only read in your doctor's office – is why we're proud to announce the release of WebMD the Magazine Digital Edition.

    In each edition, you will get
    these features:
    • Expert beauty tips
    • Healthy recipes
    • Celebrity health stories
    • And much more!

    That "voice" is the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that handles planning, making choices, and suppressing urges. It coordinates with another region of the prefrontal cortex called the right orbitofrontal cortex, an area involved in regulating emotions. When you encounter a potential reward, these areas of the brain do some quick math to determine whether you'll be better off going for it or putting your energy toward a bigger payoff later.

    Small Impulse vs. Big Payoff

    "Often, one is faced with small immediate rewards versus larger delayed rewards. Individuals who choose to wait for larger delayed rewards are typically seen as less impulsive," says Marc N. Potenza, MD, associate professor of psychiatry and child study at Yale University School of Medicine.

    Impulsivity has two main characteristics: rapid, unplanned reactions and reduced concern for the consequences of actions. Clearly, poor impulse control can have all sorts of negative effects on your life, Potenza says. For example, being unable to control your anger can lead to problems at work and with your family. Lack of impulse control can cause compulsive disorders involving such things as gambling, shopping, or sex. It has even been linked to type 2 diabetes.

    There also seems to be a genetic component to impulse control. A 2008 study suggests that genetic factors influence the size of the right orbitofrontal cortex. Teenagers with less volume in this area were more susceptible to alcohol abuse.

    You can, however, learn to control yourself better, Potenza says. It may be as simple as paying better attention to the voice of your prefrontal cortex. Now, Arthur says, "my main trick is just reminding myself, as I'm beginning to go down the decision-making road, how I will feel afterward."

    Today on WebMD

    contemplation
    Differences between feeling depressed or feeling blue.
    lunar eclipse
    Signs of mania and depression.
     
    man screaming
    Causes, symptoms, and therapies.
    woman looking into fridge
    When food controls you.
     
    Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
    Article
    senior man eating a cake
    Article
     
    Phobias
    Slideshow
    woman reading medicine warnings
    Article
     
    depressed young woman
    Article
    man with arms on table
    Article
     
    veteran
    Article
    man cringing and covering ears
    Article
     

    WebMD Special Sections