Be Less Impulsive with Mindfulness

“The antithetical nature of mindfulness and automatic or impulsive behaviors provides theoretical promise for the efficacy of mindfulness skills in the treatment of impulse control disorders.” – Kelcey J. Stratton


Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a very serious mental illness that is estimated to affect 1.6% of the U.S. population. It involves unstable moods, behavior, and relationships, problems with regulating emotions and thoughts, impulsive and reckless behavior, and unstable relationships. In addition, 30 to 90 % of BPD cases are associated with high rates of early traumatic experiences including sexual, physical and emotional abuse. BPD is associated with high rates of co-occurring depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, suicidal behaviors, and completed suicides. Needless to say it is widespread and debilitating.


Many of these symptoms occur in other mental illnesses. Impulsivity, however, distinguishes BPD from other disorders. In addition, it is the reason that the disorder is dangerous to the individuals as it can propel them, on the spur of the moment, to overreact to anger, take drugs, harm themselves, and even terminate their lives. BPD has not responded well to a variety of therapies with the exception of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT). It is significant that a difference between DBT and other therapies is that it emphasizes mindfulness. This suggests that mindfulness training may be essential in treating Borderline Personality Disorder and impulsivity. Indeed, BPD sufferers who are high in mindfulness tend to be low in impulsivity. It would make sense, then, that the mindfulness training occurring in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT) may be an effective treatment for the dangerous symptom of impulsivity.


In today’s Research News article “Effects of mindfulness training on different components of impulsivity in borderline personality disorder: results from a pilot randomized study”

Soler and colleagues randomly assigned Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) patients to receive 10-weeks of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT) which was modified to include only Mindfulness Training (MT) or Interpersonal Effectiveness Training (IE). IE is designed to teach patients how to act more effectively in interpersonal interactions. They found that only the Mindfulness Training group showed a significant improvement in three self-reported aspects of impulsivity, motor impulsiveness (acting without forethought); attentional impulsiveness (the tendency to make quick, non-reflexive decisions), and non-planning impulsiveness (failure to prepare for future events). They also measured impulsivity with a series of laboratory tests designed to measure various aspects of impulsivity. They found that the Mindfulness Training group showed improvements in delaying gratification and in time perception.


These results are interesting. They suggest that the Mindfulness Training component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DPT) may be effective in treating the impulsivity characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) by improving the patients’ ability to delay gratification. Improved time perception may be responsible for better ability to delay gratification. It is important to note that impulsivity usually involves an inability to wait to get what is wanted. So, improved ability to delay gratification would be antithetical to impulsiveness. This may be the underlying mechanism by which mindfulness reduces impulsivity.


As mentioned BPD is a difficult disorder to treat and potentially dangerous to the self and others. It appears that the distinctive feature of BPD, impulsivity, is improved by DBT and that it is the mindfulness training that is responsible. This is particularly important as impulsivity is primarily responsible for the dangerous behaviors of BPD sufferers. It also appears that the mindfulness training acts to reduce impulsivity by improving time perception and the ability to delay gratification.


Impulsivity produces actions reflexively without awareness. Mindfulness training by improving the individual’s awareness of the immediate situation would tend to counteract impulsive action. So, mindfulness training may be essential to DBT’s ability to reduce impulsiveness by making the individual more aware of what they are doing. One cannot be mindful and impulsive at the same time.


So, be less impulsive with mindfulness.


“Decreased impulsivity has significant and wide implications for those suffering from it. This includes less general psychiatric morbidity, improved substance use outcomes, and general improvement in decision making skills, affecting every area of a person’s life in meaningful ways.” – Gisli Kristofersson


CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies


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