Impulsivity in Action: Why ADHDers Struggle with Response Inhibition (And How to Improve)

Improving Impulse Control in Adult ADHD

What is Response Inhibition?

Response Inhibition (also sometimes called Impulse Control) is the ability to suppress actions that are inappropriate in a given context, and/or actions that interfere with goal-driven behavior. In short - being able to stop and think before acting.

Response Inhibition (or a lack thereof) can look different from person to person. A few examples include:

  • Overspending
  • Overeating
  • Interrupting others
  • Emotional Outbursts
  • Blurting things out before thinking
  • Risky behavior
  • Fidgeting or difficulty sitting still
  • Lack of patience
  • Being easily distracted

How Does ADHD Affect Response Inhibition?

Those of us with ADHD have probably heard things like, “you just need to think before you speak,” or “you lack discipline,” or “you have no willpower.” We may have developed a habit of beating ourselves up for making mistakes - especially the ones we seem to keep making over and over.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize that “willpower” and “self-control” are not innate character strengths. They’re just indicators of Response Inhibition in action. And for those of us with ADHD, telling ourselves no in the moment isn’t a matter of choice - it’s a matter of neuroscience.

There are two main parts of the brain that are involved in Response Inhibition: the Prefrontal Cortex, and the Thalamus.

  • The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is like the brain’s command center. It’s responsible for regulating emotion, decision-making, and motivation.
  • The Thalamus, on the other hand, acts as the brakes for the PFC, telling it when to slow down and evaluate the situation before making a decision.

To make things even more interesting, there are also TWO different executive function systems: Hot, and Cold.

  • The Hot executive function system kicks in when emotional stakes are high. It’s basically your knee jerk reaction - it tells you how to feel based on the current situation, and to act accordingly.
  • The Cold executive function system uses logic and data. When the Cold executive function system is on, we’re able to process and evaluate all information, and make decisions based on that analysis.

Unfortunately, in ADHD brains, the message to slow down is a little sluggish, and often doesn’t reach the PFC in time - meaning we end up making snap decisions we regret later.

On top of that, if you’re in an emotionally-charged situation (you’re feeling excited, scared, anxious, angry) your Hot EF system is activated. So, your body is primed for fight or flight, and those knee jerk reactions are ready to go.

How to Improve Response Inhibition

In order to exert that “self-control” people keep talking about, we first need to understand how decisions are made. We want to move from Reactive to Responsive.

  • Reactive: You’re in the Hot EF system, so the Prefrontal Cortex acts first, and asks questions later
  • Responsive: You’re in the Cold EF System, and able to take the time to evaluate before making a decision

So, how do we pause to think and evaluate when our brain is on fire with emotion, and the brakes are turned off?

Well, it takes practice - but it can be done. Let’s run through it.

Practice Makes Progress

The first step is developing greater awareness. There are a few things in particular to pay attention to:

  • What are your emotional triggers? Think about the situations where you tend to make decisions you regret later. What were you feeling?
  • What are your environmental triggers? In those situations, where are you? Who are you with?
  • How does your body respond to different emotions? For example, do you feel hot in certain areas of your body? Do you notice tension in specific areas?

One of the best things you can do for yourself, starting out, is make a habit of reflection immediately after a situation where you think your Response Inhibition was lackluster. Consider the following:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how strong was the emotion in that situation?
  • What was the urge you felt?
  • What were the consequences of the action you took?
  • What alternative actions could you take in the future, in the same situation?

As you deepen your awareness of yourself, your body, and the triggers for the behavior, you can begin to interrupt the cycle before you make a regrettable decision or action. Make a habit of checking in with yourself to see how you’re feeling in the moment. If you’re running hot, take some time to let that cool calm kick in before reacting.

Our brains may have developed with some less-than-stellar brakes. But it’s always possible to learn a new behavior. At first, the new choice is tough. You’ll probably still feel the same way, in the situation, and our brains are built for the path of least resistance, so they’ll want to do what they’re used to doing. But, the more you practice the alternative, the easier it becomes. And If you feel like you need a little extra support, a Shimmer ADHD coach may be able to help.

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