Skip to content
My WebMD Sign In, Sign Up

Mental Health Center

Font Size

Got Impulse Control?

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

Developing Impulse Control

You can improve self-control at any age, according to Marc N. Potenza, MD.

For kids: Practice, practice. Learning social skills such as sharing, taking turns, and letting others talk is not only polite, it's an exercise in impulse control. Starting this training early helps build this brain function and instills good habits.

For grown-ups: "Trying to foster good habits in people at an early age is helpful but it's never too late. People can change -- particularly if they are motivated to change," says Potenza. To fight temptation, try substituting a healthier immediate reward for the less desirable treat you crave. For example, put a dollar into a vacation fund every time you resist the urge to have a drink.

If tips don't do the trick, medications combined with cognitive behavior therapy can reduce compulsive behaviors, including gambling and substance abuse.

Reviewed on September 02, 2010

Today on WebMD

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
Plate of half eaten cakes
mother kissing newborn
Woman multitasking
colored pencils
Woman relaxing with a dog

WebMD Special Sections