An impulsive behavior is when you act quickly with no thought to the consequences. There’s nothing on your mind beyond that exact moment.
We all engage in impulsive behavior from time to time, especially when we’re young. As we mature, we learn to control our impulses for the most part. It’s not necessarily part of a disorder.
Frequent impulsive behavior can be associated with certain mental health conditions.
By itself, impulsive behavior is not a disorder. Anyone can act on impulse once in a while.
Sometimes, impulsive behavior is part of an impulse control disorder or other mental health disorder. This may be the case when:
- there’s a pattern of impulsive behavior
- you’re unable to gain control over impulses
- there are other signs and symptoms of mental illness
Acting on impulse is spontaneous. There’s no consideration to how it could affect others. There’s no wondering how you’ll feel about it later. It’s just about the here and now.
Examples of this include:
- bingeing: overindulging in things like shopping, gambling, and eating
- destruction of property: destroying your own or someone else’s things in a moment of anger
- escalating problems: taking minor situations and making them more urgent and important than necessary
- frequent outbursts: losing your cool far too often, even when it’s clearly uncalled for
- lots of starting over: abruptly joining and quitting groups or wiping the slate clean in search of a fresh start
- oversharing: talking without thinking and sharing intimate details
- physical violence: overreacting by getting physical in the spur of the moment
- higher risk sex: engaging in sex without a condom or other barrier method, especially with a person whose STI status is unknown
- self-harm: hurting yourself in the heat of anger, sadness, or disappointment
Young children are often impulsive. That’s because they don’t yet realize how their own behavior can affect others. They may not understand that their actions have consequences beyond their immediate wants.
Some examples of this are:
- ignoring danger: running into the street without checking traffic or jumping into a pool even though they can’t swim
- interrupting: frequently butting into conversations
- getting physical: pushing another child or throwing something when upset
- grabbing: Taking what they want rather than asking or waiting for a turn
- getting vocal: screaming or yelling in frustration
How we make decisions is a complex process. The cause of being impulsive may not always be evident.
People may also indulge in risky behavior for reasons other than impulsivity. It’s also not uncommon to see impulsiveness in young children who haven’t developed self-control.
Researchers have a long way to go to fully understand the links between impulsivity and:
- brain connectivity
- brain function
Physical conditions, such as brain lesions and stroke, can also lead to symptoms such as impulsive behavior.
Anyone can become frequently impulsive, but it can sometimes be a sign of an underlying disorder.
The following are some disorders that may lead to impulsivity. The exact causes for these disorders are unknown. They may develop due to a combination of factors that include:
- brain function
- brain injury
- physical changes in the brain
- childhood trauma
Borderline personality disorder
Borderline personality disorder is a mental health condition involving emotional instability. Symptoms include:
- poor self-image
- dangerous behaviors
Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by extreme shifts in mood, often mania or depression.
In a manic episode, someone may have the symptom of impulsive behavior. Other symptoms include:
- high energy
- racing thoughts and talkativeness
- less need for sleep
- poor decision-making
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
People with ADHD can find it hard to pay attention and control impulsive behavior. Symptoms can include:
- interrupting others
- trouble focusing or concentrating
Certain substances, such as alcohol, can break down inhibitions. This can lead to impulsive behavior.
On the other hand, impulsivity may contribute to the development of substance use disorders. It may not be possible to determine which came first.
Antisocial personality disorder
Antisocial personality disorder involves impulsive and manipulative behavior. Other symptoms are:
- quick to anger
- a lack of remorse
Intermittent explosive disorder
In intermittent explosive disorder, a person experiences frequent episodes of impulsive or aggressive behavior. Examples of this are:
- temper tantrums
- physical violence
- road rage
Kleptomania is a rare condition in which you can’t resist the compulsion to steal. People with kleptomania tend to have coexisting mental health disorders. These can include anxiety and depression.
Pyromania is a rare mental health disorder — a type of impulse control disorder — in which you can’t control the impulse to set fires.
Trichotillomania is another rare condition. It involves a powerful desire to pull out your own hair.
This condition is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder, though it was formerly classified as an impulse control disorder.
Brain injury or stroke
Brain injury or stroke can lead to changes in behavior. This includes:
- poor judgement
- short attention span
Even if you don’t have a diagnosis of a mental health condition, frequent impulsive behavior is something you should address.
Impulsive behavior can lead to other inappropriate behaviors with potentially serious consequences.
- suicide in people who have borderline personality disorder
- drug misuse in those who use multiple drugs
- manic episodes
- depressive episodes
Other research shows a link between impulsiveness and violent behavior.
If you or your child frequently behave on impulse, see a doctor. You can start with a primary care physician or pediatrician. If necessary, they can refer you to a mental health specialist.
How to approach this behavior depends on the cause. In many cases, the person is not at fault. They may not have the ability to change.
When it’s your child, you can:
- make them aware of their impulsivity and how it affects them later
- explore alternative behaviors by role-playing
- teach and practice patience
You can deal with your own impulsive tendencies by:
- mentally walking through potential scenarios and practicing how to stop and think before acting
- dealing directly with your usual impulsiveness by making it harder to binge, splurge, or dive headlong into things
If you feel that you can’t gain control on your own, a healthcare professional can provide helpful resources.
Everyone behaves impulsively sometimes. Most of the time, we can work to limit those behaviors on our own.
Sometimes, impulsive behavior is part of an impulse control disorder or other type of mental health condition. These disorders can be treated.
If you have major problems due to impulsive behavior, help is available. Take the first step and see a doctor.