Don’t ask a woman eating ice cream from a box how she’s doing.
When I saw this statement on Facebook, I laughed, of course … and then considered the truth in that humor as it relates to emotional intelligence and its impact on wellness.
One of the essential factors of emotional intelligence is impulse control, basically resisting or delaying an urge. Impulses are sparked by drives that give us pleasure like food, comfort, possessions, entertainment, affection, sex and social dominance. These things stimulate our brain’s mesolimbic dopamine reward system, which is also responsible for addictions. When we do what our drives tell us to do, we’re rewarded with pleasure.
That pleasure, however, is often fleeting. Sweet and satisfying? Probably, at least temporarily. Lasting and good for you? Not so much. In fact, lack of impulse control is one of the most prevalent saboteurs to our wellness. Our stamina, energy, resilience and physical health are depleted when we give in to unhealthy impulses.
Have you seen a toddler with excellent impulse control? No, neither have I! A parent’s effort to withhold ice cream before breakfast or explain why they can’t buy a pony may easily be met with monster tears and wails of frustration.
Even those of us who understand emotional intelligence (and claim to have some) have a little toddler in us every now and then when presented with That One Thing we just can’t resist – especially when we’re stressed, not feeling well or simply ill-equipped to deal with it.
So how do we arm ourselves to resist temptation?
Like toddlers, we must be taught to control our impulses. Counting to ten, taking a deep breath, punching a pillow instead of a sibling or co-worker … these are learned behaviors. Here are some others you can use to prevent and resist destructive urges.
- Know your temptations. Reacting and responding with cynicism, sarcasm or sharp words shows poor impulse control. Too much of anything – eating, drinking, spending, shopping, gambling, Facebook, anger – may be an indication that your impulse control is lacking. If you’ve gotten in trouble for giving in to an impulse, consider it risky.
- Once you identify your temptations, avoid them! Keep junk food or alcohol out of the house. Avoid malls or cut up of credit cards. Eat before you shop for groceries. Hang out with friends who don’t indulge in a destructive way. It’s okay to start small – but start.
- Meditation trains the brain for greater focus and self-control, which improves its ability to resist destructive impulses. Brain imaging studies have shown that meditation increases activity in the frontal cortex, and scientists believe this heightened activity is responsible for increased self-control and decreased impulsiveness.
- Be physically healthy. Moving your body for as little as 10 minutes releases a neurotransmitter that sooths your brain and increases impulse control. Getting sleep increases your brain cells’ ability to absorb glucose, a substance that increases your brain’s ability to control impulses. If your blood sugar is low, you’re far more likely to give in to urges and splurges.
Prepared as you may be, you may still occasionally find yourself staring down an impulse, seeing who’s going to blink first. When that happens:
- Pay attention. Step back and observe your emotions, thoughts and feelings without judging them. Discern true thoughts from untrue ones. Reflect on your urge and the need(s) it’s meeting. Now you can make choices, not just react to an impulse.
- Evaluate alternatives. Don’t give in yet! What else could calm or energize you? Is there something else to eat instead of that Snickers bar? Could you drink a glass of water first to make sure you’re actually hungry and not just thirsty?
- Count to ten. Better yet, wait ten minutes. Delaying often leads to resisting. The urge may pass or become less alluring because you have power over it. Let that become your habit.
- Practice. It can take time, effort and lots of practice to re-train yourself. If you have toddlers in your life, think about how patient you can be when teaching them how to behave … and then allow yourself that same grace.