I am writing this article on a whim. This is not my norm. Usually, when I choose a subject to write about, I plan ahead and focus on something that is currently being discussed in the news or social media.
As someone with ADHD, I am prone to impulses (case in point) and have spent most of my life learning how to control them. Like many children, these impulses usually got me into trouble. Fortunately, as I grew older, I began to learn ways to limit my impulsivity.
A lack of impulse control is perhaps the most difficult symptom to change in individuals with ADHD and harder for children because the prefrontal cortex (which regulates impulse control) is not yet fully developed.
Edward F. Hudspeth, an associate dean of counseling at Southern New Hampshire University, acknowledges that “some impulsivity is just a natural part of growing up [and] learning from situations.” It becomes a problem, however, when repeated consequences and societal pressures have no impact on the person’s impulsive behavior. (1)
Children with impulse-control issues are most prone to verbal outbursts and some form of physical aggression. While, in adults, impulsive behaviors may intensify and lead to something more destructive such as alcoholism or drug addiction. It takes years of patience and persistence to successfully turn this around.
In psychopathology, impulsivity is defined in three different ways: Fast reaction without thinking and conscious judgment, acting without enough thinking, and a tendency to act with less thinking compared to the others who have similar levels of knowledge and ability. (2)
An impulse control disorder is a chronic condition where individuals may have difficulty controlling either their emotions or behaviors. These actions are characterized by a person’s inability to maintain self-control ultimately resulting in the onset of extreme disruptions and dysfunctions in personal, social and academic aspects of their lives.
Even though impulsive behavior can seem to happen out of nowhere, in reality, there are 5 stages of impulsivity: (3)
- The compelling urge or desire
- Failure to resist the urge
- A heightened sense of arousal
- Succumbing to the urge, which provides temporary relief
- Remorse or feeling guilty after the behavior is over
While not all impulsive behaviors stem from a mental illness, a wide range of mental health disorders which often start in adolescence (including depression and substance abuse) have been linked to impulsivity. (4) Finding a way to identify and treat those most vulnerable to impulsivity early in life is key.
Impulse-control disorders are often first diagnosed in childhood, but they can occur through one’s lifespan.
While impulsive decisions may be based on temporary feelings, the effect of these actions may be longer term.
Addiction is both impulsive and compulsive, but the earliest phases of addiction are driven by impulsivity. Substances such as drugs and alcohol change the brain, causing people to uncontrollably act on powerful urges, which is the root cause of addictive behavior. The most common impulse control disorders are: kleptomania, pyromania, intermittent explosive disorder, pathological gambling, and trichotillomania (the urge to pull out body hair).
Most individuals with a lack of impulse control, find themselves reacting in the moment, then later regretting their actions afterward.
Here are some simple impulse control tips from humantold.com to help control the urges:
- Try to understand your inner motivation and process how being impulsive has negatively affected you.
- Learn to Identify triggers (people, places or things that are associated with your impulsivity). We are more impulsive when we are stressed or irritable.
- Ask for help! You may be surprised with how friends and family are able to help you make meaningful changes. Professional help is sometimes warranted as well; psychotherapy and pharmaceutical drugs can be beneficial when impulsivity is caused by or exacerbated by underlying conditions.
- Learn healthy coping skills such as mindfulness training.
- Pause and practice taking time to reflect before your actions. Start with something small and easy, like a mildly frustrating conversation where you can try to express yourself assertively and thoughtfully versus aggressively and reactively.
- Hold yourself accountable for your actions, especially when they are impulsive.
- Reflect on the benefits of your progress and be patient! We can all be impulsive at times because we are all human!
(2) Arce E, Santisteban C. Impulsivity: a review. Psicothema. 2006;18(2):213–20. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]