What Is Impulsivity?

Impulsivity is the tendency to act without thinking, for example if you blurt something out, buy something you had not planned to, or run across the street without looking.

To a degree, this kind of behavior is common, especially in children or teenagers, and isn’t necessarily a sign of trouble. It’s typical for them to act impulsively because their brains are still developing. But in some cases, it can be a part of certain conditions.

When Impulsivity Goes Too Far

It’s human nature to sometimes say or do something you wish you hadn’t. But some people are impulsive often, maybe several times a day. Acting that way can lead to problems and regret.

If you notice a regular pattern of the following, it might be an issue:

  • Aggressive behavior
  • Restlessness
  • Interrupting others
  • Being easily distracted

Conditions Linked to Impulsivity

Impulsive behavior can be a sign of several conditions. Some of the most common ones include:

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Examples of impulsivity here include interrupting others who are talking, shouting out answers to questions, or having trouble waiting your turn when standing in line.

Bipolar disorder. This brain disorder affects your mood, energy level, and ability to do day-to-day activities. Impulsiveness can show up in behaviors like extreme spending habits or substance abuse.

Antisocial personality disorders. With these disorders, you pay little or no attention to right and wrong and tend to treat people badly without thinking about the consequences. Impulsive behavior linked to them can include substance abuse or other harmful actions and having a hard time with personal relationships.

Impulse Control Disorders

These disorders are less common. People who have them act on urges to do things that harm them or others, or that aren’t acceptable socially or are against the law. They can take many different forms, such as:

Intermittent explosive disorder. This is the tendency to lose your temper often, usually in short outbursts. Even the smallest of issues can trigger it.

Trichotillomania. Also known as “hair-pulling disorder,” this is when you can’t stop pulling out your hair – on top of your head, eyebrows, eyelids, or anywhere else on your body.

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Kleptomania. This is when you can’t resist the urge to steal and feel a sense of relief when you do it, though you might not even keep what you steal.

Pyromania. This is the urge to set fires or being obsessed about setting fires. It’s rare -- only around 3% of the population has it.

Pathological gambling. While many people make a small handshake wager here and there or play the occasional office pool, people who have this disorder can get caught up in it to the point that it affects their work or relationships and the stress takes a toll on their health.

Treatment

If impulsivity is part of a condition, the treatment depends on the cause. One general approach is applied behavioral analysis, where you learn to work through or better handle situations that tend to trigger your impulsive behavior.

Your doctor also might recommend medications. Antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, can help with impulse control disorders.

If the behavior is part of ADHD, medications prescribed for that condition might help. Those include amphetamine and dextroamphetamine (Adderall) or methylphenidate (Concerta, Daytrana, Methylin, Ritalin). Sometimes, nonstimulant medications like clonidine and guanfacine can help with impulse control, too.

Being ready for situations that can bring on impulsivity also helps. For example, you might carry a notebook either to doodle in to distract yourself or to write something down before saying it out loud. The idea here is to pause before you act impulsively, so you have a chance to think through whether what you’re about to do is a good idea and what the consequences might be.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on December 12, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Compass Rose Academy: “Normal Teen 101 – The Top 10 Behavior Issues.”

CHADD.org: “Oops! That Was Impulsive.”

HealthyChildren.org: “Common Symptoms of Hyperactivity/Impulsivity.”

Frontiers in Psychiatry: “Impulse Control Disorders: Updated Review of Clinical Characteristics and Pharmacological Management.”

National Institutes of Health, PubMed Central: “The Biopsychosocial Consequences of Pathological Gambling,” “Impulsivity In Bipolar Disorder: Relationships With Neurocognitive Dysfunction and Substance Use History.”

KidsHealth.org: “ADHD,” “ADHD Medicines.”

American Psychiatric Association: “Help With Bipolar Disorders.”

Mayo Clinic: “Antisocial Personality Disorder.”

AppliedBehavioralAnalysisEdu.Org: “ABA In The Treatment of Aggressive Behavior Disorder and Lack of Impulse Control.”

American Addiction Centers: “Impulse Control Disorders and Substance Abuse.”

HelpGuide.org: “ADHD Medications.”

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