During May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, advocates like myself educate the public on various topics. One topic we don’t learn enough about is how emotional impulses affect our mind, body, and lives.
Impulses, the strong biological pulls to take action, come from emotions. In fact, the whole purpose of emotions is to compel us to move.
The word emotion comes from the Latin word “emovere” meaning to “move out, remove, agitate.” From sprinting out of a burning building (fear), to punching someone who insults us (anger), to jumping into a teammate’s arms after hitting the winning grand slam (joy, excitement, pride, bonding), impulses are the body’s way of quickly carrying out actions that the mind-brain-body deems necessary. Impulses compel us to act without thought, consciousness, or awareness. In other words, they are knee-jerk reactions.
Considering that impulses propel us to act in ways that undermine our connections (rifts), our values (cheating/stealing), ourselves (self-destructive compulsions), and our very existence (think war), I am bewildered why we don’t talk more about them.
Some Examples of Impulses in Modern Life
Johnny reaches for a beer after work. He is fighting off awareness of a deep-seated sadness. The sadness is always on the verge of bubbling up. He longs for that warm numbing sensation that the first sip brings. It’s an impulse that doesn’t serve Johnny in the long run, as it hurts his health and his most important relationships.
Celeste calls her kids lazy. She is tired and needs help. Understandably, Celeste is triggered to anger when her kids don’t listen, even though they aren’t trying to hurt her. They are just being kids. The impulses of anger can cause us to lash out in response to feeling disrespected, insulted, or abandoned.
Name calling doesn’t motivate her children to listen better or help her with chores or feel grateful for the work she does to care for them. But it does damage her child’s wellbeing and her relationships with them, which Celeste does not want.
Charly hugs everyone. Identifying as a non-binary person, who uses the plural pronoun they/them/theirs, Charly is naturally full of love and exuberance. They just assume that everyone loves hugs. But we know from Joe Biden’s infamous hug that many people don’t like being touched by strangers or even hugged at all. They need to check this impulse so they don’t get rejected or make others uncomfortable.
How often do we take time to contemplate whether we are acting from a thought-out place or an impulsive place? In my experience, not very often. But that is not our fault. How would we even think to consider our impulses when our society still doesn’t bring attention to them as a biological process?
We should be getting a formal education on emotions starting in high school. But we don’t. We cannot understand our impulses, let alone work with them on behalf of our wellbeing and health, if we don’t know what they are and how to think about them.
Once we safely recognize our impulses and consider them, benefits happen. Instead of shoving them down or exploding them out, we become masterful, in control, and relaxed. We gain confidence. With an education in emotions and impulses, we gain power to stop undermining our relationships, our goals, and our values. We have choice and influence.
A few basics about impulses:
- Your emotions trigger physical reactions. These are your impulses.
- Impulses happen whether you have emotional awareness or not.
- Many problems in life can be helped by examining impulses.
- Impulses can be noticed and curtailed without invalidating them.
- Impulses can be redirected so we don’t explode or feel tense.
- Impulses are not bad, they just are. But sometimes they don’t serve us.
To master control of your impulses, a great first goal is to become familiar with them. This means getting comfortable sensing them in the body — without acting on them.
Want to try an experiment?
You can use food for this experiment because food brings forth many impulses. Or, if food doesn’t move you, try the same experiment next time you have an itch that causes a strong impulse to scratch, like from a mosquito bite.
- Imagine, or even better, make one of your favorite foods and place it in front of you. I use chocolate chip cookies for this experiment. They smell so good!
- Once you recognize you want to eat the cookie, or other food that compels you, or scratch an itch, DON’T. Not yet. (This is quick experiment so know that your discomfort won’t last long.)
- Now for about 30 seconds (look at a clock or set a timer if possible), don’t act on the impulse to eat or scratch. Instead breathe deeply and slowly in and out of your belly. As you breathe, sense what the impulse feels like in your body. For example, if you feel pain, notice where in your body the pain is located, and say to yourself, “I feel pain under my ribs.” For me, I feel an actual pulling sensation from my heart toward the cookie. An itch feels tingly to me. Just notice the pull, pain, or whatever you feel. There are no right or wrong ways to feel.
- Try to objectively notice the pain, longing, pulling, tingling, etc. Try to pull back from it. Try to imagine it as something separate from you.
- Say to yourself, “How interesting it is for me to sit with this impulse! It pulls for me to grab the cookie or scratch the itch. But I don’t have to eat it or scratch it. I can stay with the impulse a little longer noticing what it feels like.”
- For extra credit, wait another 30 seconds just noticing the sensations and how they change with more time. Notice if the impulse intensifies or diminishes with more time. What happens?
- Now eat the cookie or scratch your itch. Ahhhhh…
- Pat yourself on the back for making space between your impulse and an action.
- On a daily basis, try to keep noticing your impulses by thinking about what you want to say and do BEFORE you do it.
- Keep practicing. Don’t give up. It’s worth it.
A+ for trying!