by Andrea M. Darcy
We all know children who seem to lack the ability to think before they act.
But adults can suffer from impulsivity too. It might be hidden behind your good social skills or even closed doors.
But if you have a tendency to be too impulsive, it can sabotage your relationships, affect your career, and even endanger your physical health.
What is impulsivity?
In psychology, impulsivity refers to a personality trait that leaves you prone to acting on your impulses, over thinking things through and considering the consequences.
This means you have a tendency to make rash decisions, and say things you wish you hadn’t. You might also indulge in risky behaviours.
You don’t have to come across as wild and thoughtless to have a problem with impulsivity.
Often those with impulsivity problems can seem fine in many areas of life, and holding down a job while having many friends.
Their capacity to make quick choices, if the results end up okay, can even make them appear to be bold, exciting, and unconventional. Or in some cases very successful.
But their impulsive nature will be wreaking havoc in some part of their life, even if it is behind closed doors. This could be their intimate relationships, finances, and substance habits, including overeating.
Not sure if you suffer from impulsivity?
There are several different tests psychologists and mental health professionals can use to diagnose impulsivity. The tests vary slightly, but in general they look at things like looking at:
Your habits of attention.
- move from one thing to the next, easily distracted?
- find yourself squirming in things like lectures or performances?
Your ways of taking action.
- Are you a ‘spur of the moment’ sort?
Your planning skills.
- plan things like holidays and nights out in advance or ‘wing it’?
- map out your work day or are you ad hoc?
- save money or spend without thinking too much?
- say things you don’t mean?
- do things like rush across streets without being sure it’s safe?
- have difficulty controlling eating and drinking habits?
Your ability to be consistent.
- can you finish projects?
- do you stick out things like relationships and study courses?
- do you tend to move house or change jobs often?
- are you starting new hobbies all the time?
The way your brain thinks.
- do your thoughts race about from one thing to the next?
Your ways of rationalising and making decisions.
- do you make decisions really quickly?
- do you throw in the towel out of the blue?
Why am I so impulsive?
Genetics are being looked at as one of the causes. Neurobiologists are finding that the trait of impulsivity is connected to exact regions of the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex.
But there is a strong environmental factor when it comes to impulsivity. Childhood trauma is now realised to affect the growth of the brain. And many people who experienced trauma suffer from impulsivity as adults.
One study on borderline personality disorder, which has impulsivity as one of its main symptoms, found that 81%of subjects had experienced a trauma. 71% reported physical abuse, 68% reported sexual abuse, and 62% reporting witnessing serious domestic violence.
It’s also possible to develop impulsivity after a brain injury, or damage to your brain from something like a neurodegenerative illness.
Impulsivity and relationships
Impulsivity can be highly damaging to your personal relationships.
It can trigger you to say things without thinking, hurting and pushing away the ones you love who might find your behaviour baffling and hard to accept. This can leave you very lonely, and suffering from feelings of low self-worth and shame.
A pattern of pushing and pulling is often acted out by sufferers of impulsivity, especially if they suffer from borderline personality disorder. Your impulsive behaviours can cause you enough shame you run away, then are left to fight to gain back the attention of the person you love.
Impulsivity might even be behind making poor choices in partners. You’ll choose those who you feel will ‘put up with you’ over those who you actually feel a connection with. And this can in the long term lead to more loneliness as well as depression.
Impulsivity in the work place
At work impulsivity can cause tensions with colleagues, after you say the wrong thing yet again and ‘ruffle feathers’. Over time this can lead to being unpopular and feeling misunderstood. This in turn can lead to dreading work and suffering stress and anxiety.
For some with impulsivity issues there are far bigger problems at work. You might find yourself suddenly quitting a big job over one rude email, only to later regret it. Or even being fired if your impulsivity has you go against company protocol or upsetting valued clients. In the long-term this can mean you are either often unemployed, or left in positions that are beneath your potential but involve less interaction with others.
Related mental health conditions
Related mental health conditions that have impulsivity as a symptom include:
What should I do if I suffer from impulsivity?
The very nature of impulsivity, lack of control and thought, means just ‘deciding’ to change would be unlikely to be effective.
To get your impulsivity under control and stop sabotaging good things it’s recommended to find support, such as the help of a professional psychotherapist. Several treatments psychotherapeutic treatments have been found to be effective for impulsivity.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) helps train your mind to think in less dramatic ways, which helps you to be less overreactive and make better choices for yourself.
Mindfulness is a practise of learning to notice how you are feeling and thinking as it happens. It has been found to be very helpful in impulsivity related to borderline personality disorder. One study found that participants no longer matched a diagnosis of the disorder after being treated with mindfulness.
Dialectic behavioural therapy (DIT) combines both cognitive therapy, mindfulness, and other things like metaphorical thinking. It was designed especially to help with impulsivity.
Do you have a question about your impulsiveness we didn’t answer? Ask below.
Andrea M. Darcy is the founding editor of this site. A popular mental health writer, she also coaches people on how to find a therapist. Diagnosed with ADHD when young, she knows a thing or two about impulsivity!