Got Impulse Control?

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

Medically Reviewed by Patricia A. Farrell, PhD on September 01, 2010
3 min read

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."

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.

"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."

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.