Is being impulsive bad

When Is It an Issue?

Written by Jon Cooper

In this Article

  • When Impulsivity Goes Too Far
  • Conditions Linked to Impulsivity
  • Impulse Control Disorders
  • Treatment

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 symtrom of several conditions. It can also be seen in patients with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders, as well as substance abuse. 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.

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 psychiatric inpatients are diagnosed with pyromania.

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.


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.

The Blessings and Curses of Impulsiveness

Source: lightsource/Depositphotos

You have probably done it before: fired off an offensive response to an email, said something you later regretted or did something to you wish you wouldn’t have. Yes, you, like many others, have probably fallen victim to impulsivity.

There may have been times your impulsive actions paid off. Yet, there are those times where your impulsive behavior may have left you asking “What was I thinking?” There is no doubt about it: The complexity of impulsiveness can be a blessing on one hand and a curse on the other.

The Blessings

Let’s face it: Impulsivity often gets a bad rap and that is not fair because it can be a motivating force behind artistic genius. For example, some really great art, books, and music have come out of impulsive action. Impulsivity can boost and even enhance creative moments. If you’ve experienced the upside of impulsivity, then you are no stranger to the gnawing urge to spontaneously act out on a whim. Sometimes your impromptu actions can serve a good purpose. They allow you, the decision-maker, to act swiftly and seize an opportunity that might otherwise pass you by. This type of fruitful and positive impulsiveness has been referred to as “functional impulsivity” and one could call it a blessing in disguise.

The Curses

There are times that acting too hastily can lead to big trouble. You can probably think of a time that your impulsivity had you later regretting what you did or said. This type of behavior is known as “dysfunctional impulsivity” and the name says it all. When you constantly act on impulse, you appear out of control, your behavior is erratic and your life may feel unstable. It’s comparable to letting a reckless driver take control of your life. You allow your urges and desires to steer you down a path of destruction. Impulsivity can become a curse when spur-of-the-moment decisions are not moderated by forethought and logic.

Source: vantuz/Depositphotos

Strike the Right Balance

How can you deal with impulsive urges and desires and not let a good opportunity pass you by? The answer lies in striking the right balance. You have to learn to temper and tame your impulsive actions. The steps below can help you regain control and hop back into the driver’s seat of your life.

1. Increase your self-awareness.

Become aware of situations that result in impulsivity. Ask yourself, “What needs and desires am I trying to meet when I act this way?” Knowing and understanding your triggers will help you identify the situations that often result in impulsive behaviors.

2. Take a self-imposed time-out.

Odds are if you're not in a life-or-death situation, you can bide your time. Sure, there will be situations that force you to act on a whim, but in most cases, your decision can wait. Putting some space between you and the event can help the gut-gnawing urge diminish.

Try this: Take some deep breaths and relax your body and mind. If it’s impossible to escape, then take a mental break. Get away by thinking of something soothing, like running on a familiar trail, treating yourself to a latte at your favorite cafe, or escaping to a place that holds fond memories. Allow yourself to zone out momentarily. Taking a mental break will help you get away from the situation when you can’t physically get away.

3. Find a balancing partner.

Rely on a trusted friend or partner who can help curb your spur-of-the-moment decisions. Bounce your ideas off of this person and get a different perspective on the situation. Often having a fresh point of view can help you see things more clearly.

4. Put alternative strategies in place.

Do you blurt out answers in class or interrupt during meetings? Does your impulsivity cause problems in your everyday encounters? If so, find a way to tame your behavior by substituting it with another, more acceptable one. For example, if you frequently talk out of turn, carry around a small notebook and jot down your thoughts, or if you’re technologically proficient, download a notes app and type your thoughts. Putting small steps in place to change your behavior can keep you from taking a leap into the unknown.

5. Learn to relax through mindfulness.

Source: iqoncept/Depositphotos

Practice living in the moment and observe what is happening around you. Recognize your impulsive thoughts for what they are: a thought, nothing more, and nothing less. A thought in and of itself is not harmful; it is the action that follows that can become problematic. Mindfulness helps you to observe your thoughts from a distance and allow them to freely come and go. Yoga and meditation are great ways to teach you how to stop, breathe, and live for today.

And there you have it: the advantages and disadvantages of impulsiveness along with ways to strike the right balance between the two. So, the next time you feel the desire to act on a whim, put some space between your thoughts and actions and ask yourself whether your impulsive desire is a blessing or a curse.

How impulsivity affects our brain

April 19, 2016 Productivity

Are you often distracted, constantly putting things off and unable to focus on important tasks? Don't immediately blame everything on procrastination. Perhaps the problem is not in her at all, but in your excessive impulsiveness.

Procrastination can be compared to a Wi-Fi signal that is so weak that even the simplest website on your device will take forever to load. The metaphor is simple: you will hang for a long time, unable to start any of the more or less important tasks. nine0003

Painfully familiar situation, right? In addition, few people know how to find the right way out of it. Here's the catch: subconsciously, you seem ready to take on the focused and thoughtful execution of an important task, but you can't say no to a whole bunch of small distractions.

Procrastination manifests itself in many different ways, but they have one thing in common: we endlessly put off unpleasant things until later because of our impulsive habit of doing only those things that we like best or require minimal effort, and not those that need to be done. nine0003

Many people get distracted by everyday chores like cleaning the bathroom or washing dishes, others spend hours scrolling through the feed in Facebook*, and all this instead of taking on an urgent and important task. Particularly malicious procrastinators procrastinate because of a well-founded fear of not being able to complete the task at hand.

Every time he opens a Facebook* tab, instead of focusing on work or being left alone with a big unresolved problem, the procrastinator knows that in the end, completing the task will only benefit him. But nevertheless stubbornly continues to put everything off until later. The reason for this behavior is how our brain handles impulsivity. nine0003

How Impulsivity Affects Our Brain

Movies and television have made us think of impulsive people as unpredictable and risk-averse. These qualities, of course, may be signs of impulsiveness, but the truth lies elsewhere.

As a rule, impulsiveness is understood as a person's instant reaction to his own desires. That is, when something suddenly hits your head, you immediately do it, without thinking about the consequences and long-term prospects. nine0003

Behavioral psychologists Martial Van der Linden and Mathieu d'Acremont identify four main features of impulsivity in their study.

  • Urgency : The person feels the need to complete the task right away.
  • Unintentional : one acts without thinking or planning ahead.
  • Lack of perseverance : one quickly becomes frustrated with a long-term task. nine0030
  • Thrill-seeking : The person chooses which tasks to perform based on how it makes them feel.

All people are impulsive to some extent, some more than others. The whole difference is that someone is better in control of their own desires. People who are characterized by increased impulsivity experience great problems with intrinsic motivation.

They can easily let go of something they've been working on for a week just to do something that will bring them instant positive emotions. A new impulse that has just arisen will have a higher priority than a task from a week ago. In this case, there can be no talk of any planning, only what you want to do right now matters. nine0003

Impulsivity is considered a symptom of a large number of neurological disorders. For example, such as attention deficit disorder (ADHD) or substance abuse. It is extremely easy for a person with ADHD to be distracted by something like useless chatter or playing through the next level of a simple online game, just because it seems to him that it is much more important and satisfies his current desires.

For a person who has problems with substance abuse, the desire to get another dose of the drug far exceeds the fear of long-term negative consequences, which he, of course, knows about, but nevertheless does not stop abusing. In such cases, the immediate impulse dominates everything else. nine0003

How impulsivity affects your performance

Do not think that any impulsive act is automatically classified as bad. The problem only arises when you cannot control your reaction to impulses. For example, consider the following scenario.

You are sitting at your desk and working hard on your monthly report. All of a sudden, your phone bursts out of the blue with multiple new social media message alerts. You, of course, stretch out your hand to see what has come there. The next 30 minutes go something like this: you open a message, read it, then see some extremely funny picture in the news feed, follow the link that interests you, read the article that opens, get to the comments in which someone will definitely write some nonsense , which you will certainly want to argue with ... Then you look at your watch and realize quite clearly that you have wasted a good half hour absolutely for nothing.

In this story, some external stimulus, or impulse, made a person take a break from business as many as four times. It four times led to the fact that instead of work you were doing something more pleasant and easy. The vibration of the phone, an interesting picture in the feed, an interesting link and a stupid comment did their job - they distracted you from work and for some reason turned out to be more important.

Did you recognize yourself when you read this simulated story? If you can't slam on the brakes and say to yourself, "I don't have time to do such useless nonsense right now!", then chances are that impulsivity will soon kill your productivity. nine0003

Worst of all, it's all a snowball effect: if you'd ignored the message notification from the start, the next three distractions wouldn't have occurred at all. And all you had to do was turn off the sound or ignore the notification.

To keep your impulsivity under control, it is extremely important to develop the ability to catch yourself in time when you start to get distracted. You most likely have the ability to complete work on time (deadlines are proof of this), and you know how to focus quite well. The only skill you have to learn is the ability to ignore or delay responding to immediate impulses that seem more important to you than they really are. nine0003

What you can do about it

Impulsivity depends a lot on your personality. Impulse management is a lot like anger management. Being angry is sometimes absolutely necessary, but if you lose control of yourself, the consequences can be quite dire.

Same story with impulsiveness. It should be treated as one of the features of your character, which you need to learn how to manage. There are several ways to do this. nine0003

Do mindfulness exercises

To be mindful means to be as focused as possible on a particular task at the current moment. This means that you are aware of exactly what you are doing, what you are thinking about, and what consequences and results it will lead to. Mindfulness automatically assumes that you keep your thoughts in check, not letting your impulses dictate your terms.

People who cannot resist their impulsiveness face a number of problems because they are easily distracted. Fortunately, mindfulness is a quality that can be trained. If you really have problems with impulsivity, then at first such training will seem like real torture to you, but they are really worth it. nine0003

Mindfulness is not just a quality, it teaches our brain to focus.

If you can't concentrate on a long-term task, then practice will help you. Mindfulness can be trained through special applications, exercises, or even just doing housework.

Yes, it will be difficult at first, but nothing happens by itself, so just keep going. Keep practicing, and after a certain period of time your brain will get used to not responding to instantaneous impulses. nine0003

Study and plan for weaknesses

All people have their own weaknesses that can easily distract us from our work. Good knowledge of your own triggers can greatly assist you in suppressing momentary impulses.

If we go back to the phone notification example, we can find a simple and elegant solution to the problem. Put your phone on airplane mode during the work day, or at least set up notifications so that they do not distract you from the work process. nine0003

Set aside time for productive distractions

Being impulsive convinces you that if you don't do something right now, you'll never do it again. You can trick this feeling a little to give yourself room for a detour. When you really want to get distracted by something, don’t say “no” to yourself right away, just promise that you will do it a little later.

Any experienced procrastinator knows that it is easier to put something off for a while than to ignore it completely. nine0003

Set aside a certain time when you can pay attention to all the accumulated things that could distract you at once, and do them all at once. Then you will calmly work on your current tasks, knowing that the time will come for pleasant little things.

Talk to a specialist about your problems

Yes, seriously, there is nothing wrong with that. If you find that the situation is out of control and you can not focus on anything for more than a minute, then you should seek the advice of a specialist. nine0003

You might argue that lack of concentration is not that important and more contrived than a real problem, but no, it is quite serious. There is no shame in asking for help.

The specialist can prescribe medication if the problems are really big, in other cases he can advise you on some useful exercises to train your attention and memory. If you stick to them diligently, after a few weeks of practice, your brain will learn to better deal with impulsivity. nine0003

Understanding the underlying impulses that cause us to get distracted and procrastinate can help you learn to focus on long-term tasks.

It would be great if we could just sit around the table and yell, “Don't get distracted! Concentrate!” to force yourself to work better. But such a method is unlikely to save us from random thoughts. Instead of focusing all your efforts on keeping your thoughts flowing in one direction, try at first to simply not let distractions get in your way. nine0003

*Activities of Meta Platforms Inc. and its social networks Facebook and Instagram are prohibited in the territory of the Russian Federation.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - key facts in English

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

See our disclaimer that applies to all translations available on this site.

What is obsessive-compulsive disorder?

At times, we can all get hung up on some things, but if:

You obsessively have terrible thoughts even when you try to get rid of them,

You have to count or touch things over and over again, or repeat actions, such as washing your hands,

perhaps you have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Who gets OCD?

About 1 in 50 people will experience OCD at some point in their lives. Equally, it can be men and women. In the UK, their number is about 1 million people. OCD usually begins in adolescence or early adulthood. Symptoms of OCD may get worse or worse over time, but often people don't seek help for many years. nine0003

What are the signs and symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder?

  • Recurring thoughts that make you feel anxious - "obsessions" or "obsessions". It can be unpleasant words or phrases, mental pictures or doubts.
  • The things you do over and over again that help you feel less anxious are 'compulsions'. You can try to correct or "neutralize" thoughts by counting over and over again, saying a special word, or performing certain rituals. nine0030

What are the causes of OCD?

Many factors can play a role in the occurrence of OCD. One or more of the following could explain why you or someone you know has OCD.

  • In some cases, OCD is inherited, so sometimes the disorder can run in the family.
  • Stressful life events cause OCD in about a third of cases.
  • Life changes in which you have to take on more responsibility, such as puberty, the birth of a child, or a new job. nine0030
  • If you have OCD and it lasts for some time, you may develop an imbalance of serotonin (also known as 5HT), a brain neurotransmitter.
  • You are a neat, pedantic, methodical person - but you go too far in this.
  • If you have extremely high standards of morality and responsibility, you may feel especially bad about having unpleasant thoughts. To the point where you start to be wary and keep a close eye on them, which makes their appearance even more likely. nine0030

How to help yourself

  • If you regularly force yourself to think the thoughts that are bothering you, you will be able to control them better. You can write them down - on a recorder or on paper, and then listen to or reread. You should do this regularly, for about half an hour every day. At the same time, try to resist compulsive behavior.
  • Do not use alcohol to control your anxiety.
  • If your intrusive thoughts are about your faith or religion, discuss them with your religious leader to help you understand if it's an OCD problem. nine0030
  • Try using a self-help book.

Professional help Various types of psychotherapy

Exposure and response prevention

Helps stop the mutual reinforcing of compulsive behavior and anxiety.

We know that if you stay in a stressful situation long enough, you will gradually get used to it and the anxiety will go away. In this way, you gradually face the situation that you fear (exposure), but stop yourself from doing your usual compulsive rituals of checking or clearing (avoiding a response) and wait for your anxiety to go away. nine0003

Cognitive therapy

Instead of getting rid of your thoughts, cognitive therapy helps you change how you react to them. It specifically targets unrealistic self-critical thoughts. Useful if you have intrusive thoughts but are not performing any rituals or activities to reduce your anxiety. Can be used with Exposure and Response Prevention.

Antidepressant treatment

Even if you are not depressed, SSRI (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor) antidepressants can help. They may be used alone or with cognitive behavioral therapy for moderate to severe OCD. If the medicine doesn't help at all after three months of taking it, you can change it to another SSRI antidepressant or a medicine called Clomipramine (Anafranil). nine0003

How effective is the treatment?

Exposure and prevention of response

About three out of four people who completed such psychotherapy did well, but one in four will return symptoms and require additional treatment. Approximately one in four people refuse to try this type of cognitive-behavioral therapy or do not complete it - they find it too hard for them.


About six out of 10 people feel better with medication and their symptoms lessen by about half. Medications do help prevent OCD from returning for as long as they are taken, even years later. Unfortunately, about half of those who stop taking the drug return symptoms within a few months afterward. This is less likely when drug treatment is combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. nine0003

Which approach is best for me?

Mild OCD

Exposure and response prevention can be done without professional assistance. This method is effective and has no side effects, but you will feel more anxious for a while. You must be motivated and ready for hard work. Cognitive therapy and drug treatment are equally effective.

Moderate or severe OCD
  • Initially, you can choose either CBT (up to 10 hours in contact with a therapist) or medication (within 12 weeks). If you do not get better, you should try both treatments together. nine0030
  • If you have severe OCD, it is best to use medication and CBT together from the start.
  • Taking medication alone will help you if you don't feel able to face the anxiety that Exposure and response prevention will cause, but the chances of OCD coming back are higher - about one in two compared to one in four with psychotherapy treatment. The medicine must be taken for about a year and is obviously not ideal during pregnancy or breastfeeding. nine0030

The original page produced by the RCPsych Public Education Editorial Board. Series Editor: Dr Philip Timms.

Information about treatments can change rapidly and the College updates its mental health information pages regularly.

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