Inhibitory control is considered to be one of the three core executive functions.
Executive functions are skills that help us control our behaviour, adapt to new situations and problem solve in everyday life.
Inhibitory control is sometimes referred to as self-control, mindfulness, discipline or emotional regulation.
Inhibitory control allows the possibility of change and the opportunity for making choices. It is what allows you to grow as a person instead of being a creature of habit.
There are several situations where inhibitory control is essential for daily living because without it, we are at the mercy of our emotions and desires. This can often lead to regret because instead of taking the time to think about your reaction, you act on your initial impulse.
Inhibitory control of attention allows you to be selective about what you choose to focus on while ignoring other activity in the environment. This means you can consciously decide to ignore stimuli in your environment in order to focus on something specific.
For example, when in you are in a public place, like a restaurant, inhibitory control allows you to focus on what is going on at your table instead of everything else that is going on around you.
This can be difficult for individuals who have Sensory Processing Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD whether it be the Inattentive Presentation, the Hyperactive/Impulsive or combined presentation or Anxiety.
Inhibitory control of your thoughts means that you can choose what you are thinking about and focus your thoughts. It allows you to resist thinking about things that are not important to what you are doing. It also allows you to avoid unwanted thoughts or memories.
For example, when you are sitting in a class you inhibitory control allows you to focus on what the teacher is saying instead of having you mind wander to something you may find more interesting.
This can be difficult for individuals with Depression, Anxiety, ADHD, Eating Disorders, and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
Inhibitory control of movement allows you to avoid doing things with your body.
Some people use fidgeting, like tapping their foot or fingers as a way to help inhibit the need for larger movements.
Self-control brings the various types of inhibitory control together. It allows you to resist temptations, regulate your emotions, and avoid acting impulsively. It provides you with the discipline you need to stay on task despite distractions, and to resist the urge to give up even if there are more interesting things you would rather be doing.
Self-control is needed even when there are not things that are competing for your attention. It allows you to stop and think before you speak, instead of blurting out the first answer that comes to your mind. Allowing this ‘think time’ means you have the opportunity to come up with a wiser answer and prevent errors that can be associated with not being able to wait.
Like all executive functions, everyone is born with the potential to develop inhibitory control but it is not present at birth. However, this skill will only develop with the proper support and encouragement as the individual matures.
Inhibitory control is an executive function that can be practiced and can improve over time.
- Playing games where following directions and taking turns can help with inhibitory control.
- When responding in conversations, you can stop and make yourself wait a few seconds before responding.
- Practice mindfulness and self-talking strategies that involve thinking about your thinking to help control unwanted thoughts and challenging situations.
Dawson, P. & Guare, R. (2018). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and intervention. (3rd Ed.) New York, New York: Guilford Press.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology, 64, 135-168.