Impulsivity refers to the tendency to act without fully thinking things through. Most people will make impulsive decisions throughout their lives; however, regular impulsive behaviour can result in a range of negative outcomes. Impulsiveness is associated with a range of conditions including borderline personality disorder (BPD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders. Impulsive individuals may experience great frustration, guilt or regret and feel as if they lack self-control. However, there are a range of effective coping strategies to help reduce impulsivity.
What Is Impulsive Behaviour?
Impulsive behaviours are generally actions that are poorly conceived, unnecessarily risky, inappropriate and made without consideration of the consequences. Impulsive decision-making is often led by emotion as opposed to logic, and can even go against your own desires or plans. It is human nature to sometimes act in ways we wish we hadn’t, or fail to consider all negative consequences of our actions, but a regular pattern of impulsive reactions could be the sign of impulsivity issues. Acting impulsively is often linked to mental health and is even a symptom of some mental disorders.
One way of measuring impulsivity is The Dickman Impulsivity Inventory, which was first developed in 1990 by Scott J. Dickman. This proposes there are two types of impulsivity that are significantly different and which produce different traits. The scale includes functional impulsivity and dysfunctional impulsivity, recognising that there can be distinct benefits from impulsive actions. The functional aspect is characterised by quick decision-making when it is most necessary, a trait that is often considered a source of great usefulness and pride, especially in certain professions such as the military.
Common Examples of Impulsive Behaviours
- Abruptly changing or cancelling plans
- Binge eating or drinking
- Butting into conversations and talking over people
- Clearing out belongings to start anew
- Grabbing things from people
- Constantly turning over a new leaf
- Destroying property
- Escalating confrontations
- Regular risk-taking
- Aggressive behaviour
- Joining and quitting a lot of groups
- Meaningless or risky sex
- Oversharing of emotions
- Physical violence
- Quitting a job suddenly
- Self-harm or self-mutilation
- Threatening to harm one’s self or others
Conditions Related to Impulsive Behaviour
Impulsivity is thought to be distinguishable as having both a cognitive and motor impulsivity element. Cognitive impulsivity is related to selection, generally of an option that provides the fastest source of satisfaction, whereas behavioural impulsivity is less likely to recognise there is a choice in what to do. There are certain impulsive behaviours present in the diagnostic and statistical manual 5 (DSM 5).
Bipolar disorder affects a person’s mood, energy and ability to do daily tasks – often dramatically. People with bipolar experience shifts, or waves between depression and mania which affects mood, decision-making and the ability to function. Impulsivity is a core feature of bipolar disorder, and changes in mood symptoms can exacerbate impulsivity. Individuals with bipolar may suddenly engage in risky sexual encounters, spending habits or substance abuse.
Drug addiction and impulsive behaviour are often connected. Cognitive impulsivity is most commonly associated with substance abuse, as it is related to the process of making a decision that provides immediate satisfaction.
Antisocial Personality Disorder
People with antisocial personality disorders often have little awareness of or pay little attention to right and wrong. They may treat people they know badly without considering the consequences or thinking carefully about how it might affect them.
Borderline Personality Disorder
Impulsivity and emotion dysregulation are core features of borderline personality disorder (BPD), often presenting in addition to a pervasive pattern of instability in mood, self-esteem and self-image, interpersonal relationships, and impulsive behaviour.
Gambling addictions (like substance abuse) are often related to dysfunctional regulation of impulsivity.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Impulsivity is a primary symptom of impulsive-hyperactive type ADHD. The shape that this impulsivity takes can vary depending on a number of factors including age and gender. It is common for children diagnosed with ADHD to learn coping skills to deal with their impulsivity. This is commonly done through behavioural therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). ADHD-related impulsivity includes behaviours such as blurting out comments at inappropriate times, interrupting conversations or speaking out of turn. As young people with ADHD get older, impulsivity can take the shape of experimenting with drugs and alcohol, difficulty managing money due to impulsive spending and relationships or sexual encounters that are not planned or thought through.
Impulse Control Disorders
Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are a type of DSM diagnosis that cannot be attributed to the other categories in the diagnostic manual, such as substance use or personality disorders. People who have them experience intense urges or impulses to do things that harm them or others, or that are not socially or legally acceptable. They can take many different forms, such as:
- Kleptomania – a strong urge to steal things, followed by a sense of relief when you have done it, even though you may not need or even keep what you steal.
- Pyromania – an extremely uncommon disorder characterised by the urge to set things on fire.
- Intermittent explosive disorder – a disorder causing uncontrollable, often short bursts of impulsive aggression or anger.
Effective Coping Strategies
The type of coping strategies you develop generally depends on the type of impulsivity you experience, whether it is related to a specific disorder and how it interferes with your life. Impulse control is also something that develops with age. It is thought to be connected to the prefrontal cortex, which isn’t fully developed until the age of 25; however, during development, there are methods that can help you improve self-control and manage impulsivity.
There are a range of skills that can help you resist the urge to act impulsively, such as:
- The 48-Hour Rule: The 48-hour rule encourages you to wait a minimum of two full days and have two nights’ sleep before you make a major decision.
- Stepping Away: Removing yourself from a situation when you need to and checking in on your thoughts.
- The Two-Person Feedback Rule: The two-person feedback rule suggests you check with two trusted people (friends, family members, or loved ones) before making any big decisions.
- Count to 10: Slowly counting to ten in meetings or conversations before saying something can be an effective way of avoiding the tendency to butt into conversations or talk over people. It can help you feel more in control.
- Daily Mindfulness Practice: Incorporating a mindfulness practice into each day is a great way of improving concentration and increasing awareness of what is happening around you, as well as increasing awareness of your own thoughts, feelings and sensations – and in doing so, reducing impulsivity. For people with ADHD particularly, this can be challenging at first, so setting achievable goals is important. Just 5 minutes of meditation or mindfulness practice each day can alleviate anxiety and impulsivity-related mental health conditions.
Treatment and Diagnosis
There is no single test that can confirm whether impulsive behavior is the result of another condition such as borderline personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder or even a compulsive behavior disorder such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. Other related mental health conditions that have impulsivity as a symptom include:
- Binge eating disorders
- Substance use disorder
- Gambling addiction
- Antisocial personality disorder
Whether you have a diagnosis of a related disorder, or are seeking treatment to address your impulsivity alone, there are a range of treatment options available.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you to adapt thinking and behavioural patterns. During CBT sessions, a therapist can help you establish your behavioural triggers and develop specific strategies to manage your responses to these triggers.
Dialectic behavioural therapy (DIT)can also help you control impulsive behaviours. It is a modified type of CBT that aims to help people learn how to live in the moment, build healthy coping mechanisms for stress, regulate difficult emotions, and improve the quality of relationships.
At The Wave Clinic, we understand how frustrating and difficult it can be to live with impulsivity and the profound impact that it can have on your education, relationships and well-being.
We are dedicated to helping young people overcome eating disorders, depression, anxiety, ADHD and a vast range of other mental disorders in a safe, nurturing environment. Young people at The Wave receive a personalised treatment plan and engage with new and rewarding activities in order to overcome whatever challenges they face. Contact us today to learn more about The Wave program.