Impulsive Behaviors: Examples, Causes, & How to Control It

Published on: 03 Jan 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
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Updated on 1/30/2023

What is impulsive behavior? Impulsive behavior is a term used to describe acting on impulse without thinking about the consequences. Overeating, purchasing without checking your bank account, and emotional outbursts are all examples of impulsivity.

It’s normal to act occasionally without thinking, but frequent impulsive behaviors might be a symptom of a mental health condition. The good news, though, is you can learn coping techniques to manage impulsive urges. 

Read on to learn more about impulsivity, how it can interfere with your life, and how to keep impulsive behaviors under control. 

Examples of Impulsive Behavior

When someone acts on impulse, they aren’t thinking about how their behavior might affect others. They’re also not thinking about what might happen due to their actions. Instead, they act out in sudden, spontaneous behavior without foresight. Some impulsive behavior examples include:

  • Impulsive spending: People who struggle with impulsivity often make purchases without considering the costs. This could lead to credit card debt, unpaid bills, or other consequences. 
  • Binge eating or drinking: Overeating and binge drinking are both examples of impulsive behaviors. Once someone starts to indulge, they may find it difficult to stop.
  • Emotional outbursts: Most impulsive people struggle to manage their emotions, leading to frequent crying, yelling, and other types of outbursts.
  • Oversharing: Someone prone to impulsivity may share private or intimate details with others, often without even meaning to. 
  • Constantly starting over: If someone is impulsive, it may seem like they’re always turning over a new leaf. They might leave jobs or groups abruptly or abandon routines to get a fresh start.
  • Suddenly changing plans: Impulsive people can find it hard to stick with plans. They often change or cancel plans at the last minute.
  • Lying: Impulsivity can lead people to tell lies without considering the consequences. These lies are often frivolous and don’t have a clear purpose.
  • Aggressive behavior: While aggression and impulsivity aren’t always linked, impulse control issues can lead to spur-of-the-moment lashing out.
  • Property destruction: During an impulsive outburst, someone might destroy property or things that belong to someone else.
  • Unsafe sex: Impulsivity can lead people to engage in high-risk sexual activity, like unprotected sex, without considering the consequences.
  • Self-harm: Someone who struggles with impulse control may harm themselves when they’re feeling upset or overwhelmed.

“Often, people who act impulsively are demonstrating signs of other mental health concerns. Impulsive anger, shopping, sex, and other forms of impulsivity should be explored to identify the root cause.” – Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Reasons for Impulsive Behavior

Impulsive behaviors don’t always have a clear or obvious cause, but many factors can contribute to why someone might struggle with impulsiveness. Genetics, personality types, and mental health conditions can all play a role in spontaneous behavior. Here are some of the leading causes of frequent impulsive behavior.

Biology

Some people are wired to be more impulsive than others. The prefrontal cortex handles executive functions like impulse control. Research shows that many people who struggle with impulse control have prefrontal dysfunctions.

Certain personality types are also more prone to impulsive behaviors. For example, “sensation seekers” live for thrills and excitement. Thus, their desires can lead to sudden and impulsive behaviors. 

Studies also show that impulsivity is a heritable trait. That is, if you’re wired for impulsivity, there’s a good chance you may have a parent with similar impulse control issues.  

Depression

Depression is associated with low levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in the brain’s reward system. When a person is feeling depressed, engaging in impulsive behaviors might offer a brief rush of dopamine. 

Some people with depression are impulsive as a form of self-medication. Binge drinking, overeating, or impulsive spending can all temporarily ease the symptoms of depression

It’s important to point out that people with depression who engage in impulsive behaviors have an increased risk of suicide attempts, which is why it’s so critical that anyone exhibiting these symptoms to seek help for a depression diagnosis and treatment.  

ADHD

People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) tend to engage in dopamine-seeking behaviors and may struggle to plan or prioritize tasks. Impulsive behavior examples in ADHD could include blurting out things they later regret saying, making on-the-fly decisions, or using or abusing substances.

When ADHD is untreated, impulsivity can become so severe that it leaves people feeling like they’re not in control of their actions. Thankfully, getting the proper treatment, which can involve a mix of behavior therapy for ADHD and ADHD medication, can help regain feelings of control.

Personality disorder

Impulsivity is a hallmark of specific personality disorders, including antisocial personality disorder (APD), and borderline personality disorder (BPD). The types of impulsive behaviors that a person displays can vary based on their condition. 

People with APD often lack inhibition, leading them to engage in aggressive, reckless, or even criminal behaviors. 

For people with BPD, impulsive behaviors can look like self-sabotage. For example, someone may terminate a relationship after one fight or quit a job on impulse after feeling insulted by a boss. Many people with BPD use impulsive behaviors to regulate emotions when distressed.

Impulsive control disorders

An impulsive behavior disorder is a condition that makes it difficult or impossible for someone to control their impulsive urges. Urges can lead to significant dysfunction and disruption in day-to-day life. Examples of impulse control disorders include:

  • Pyromania: A condition that gives people the urge to set fires. 
  • Kleptomania: Kleptomania leaves people with an overwhelming compulsion to steal.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder: This condition is characterized by recurring physical or emotional outbursts. It’s common to feel shame or regret after outbursts.
  • Compulsive sexual behavior: Voyeurism, promiscuity, exhibitionism, and excessive masturbation can be symptoms of an impulsive behavior disorder. The urge to engage in these behaviors can be so strong that it interferes with daily functioning.
  • Compulsive gambling: Also called gambling disorder, this condition is marked by an uncontrollable impulse to gamble, regardless of the consequences.

Strokes or brain injuries

Injuries or strokes can cause changes in the brain and potentially cause an increase in impulsivity. In fact, studies show that even a minor brain injury can cause issues with impulse control.

After a brain injury, people may be less inhibited or struggle to control impulses. This could cause them to speak without thinking or participate in risky or expensive activities without considering the outcome of their actions. Note, these symptoms can improve as the injury heals.

How to Control Impulsive Behavior

Acting impulsively can have serious consequences. It’s essential that you find ways to manage your impulsiveness. The following impulse control strategies can help you to keep your urges in check.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness is all about paying attention to what’s happening in the present and observing what’s happening around you. It can help you put distance between yourself and your impulsive urges. Mindfulness techniques like deep breathing and meditation allow you to calm down when you’re tempted to engage in impulsive behaviors. 

Identify triggers

After you do something impulsive, check in with yourself and assess your behavior. Ask yourself questions so you can get a better sense of why you were tempted to act impulsively.

It’s not uncommon for people to give in to impulsive urges when feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Once you understand what causes your behaviors, you can take steps to prevent them. 

Take precautions

Set up roadblocks that will help curb the impulsive behaviors you struggle with. For example, if you’re prone to impulsive spending, you may want to use cash instead of a credit card. If you binge eat, stop keeping snack foods at home. If you are reckless with substance abuse, have an accountability partner.

Seek professional help

Anyone can be impulsive sometimes, but frequent issues with impulsivity might signify a deeper problem. Therapy can help you determine what’s causing your behaviors. With the help of a therapist, you’ll be able to find ways to manage your impulsivity and limit its effect on your life. 

“It’s important to take the time to explore impulsivity to determine if there’s a larger issue at play. Finding a therapist who’s skilled in behavior modification may be helpful as you navigate your concerns.” – Talkspace therapist Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD, C-DBT

Manage Impulsivity with Talkspace

How can you keep yourself from acting on impulse? If you struggle with impulsivity, you may feel that your urges are impossible to control. 

Thankfully, there are many ways to cope with impulses. With the help of an online therapist at Talkspace, you can find ways to keep your urges and behaviors in check. Impulsive behaviors can have severe consequences, but with the right guidance, you can learn to manage them. 

We make therapy accessible, affordable, and convenient. Learn more about Talkspace today so you can take back control of your life. 

Sources:

  1. Sebastian A, Jung P, Krause-Utz A, Lieb K, Schmahl C, Tüscher O. Frontal dysfunctions of impulse control – A systematic review in borderline personality disorder and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2014;8. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00698. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00698/full. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  2. Bevilacqua L, Goldman D. Genetics of impulsive behaviour. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 2013;368(1615):20120380. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0380. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3638385/. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  3. Belujon P, Grace AA. Dopamine system dysregulation in major depressive disorders. International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology. 2017;20(12):1036-1046. doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyx056. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5716179/. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  4. Corruble E, Benyamina A, Bayle F, Falissard B, Hardy P. Understanding impulsivity in severe depression? A psychometrical contribution. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry. 2003;27(5):829-833. doi:10.1016/s0278-5846(03)00115-5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12921916/. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  5. Winstanley CA, Eagle DM, Robbins TW. Behavioral models of impulsivity in relation to ADHD: Translation between clinical and preclinical studies. Clinical Psychology Review. 2006;26(4):379-395. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2006.01.001. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1892795/. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  6. Lawrence KA, Allen JS, Chanen AM. Impulsivity in borderline personality disorder: Reward-based decision-making and its relationship to emotional distress. Journal of Personality Disorders. 2010;24(6):785-799. doi:10.1521/pedi.2010.24.6.785. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21158600/. Accessed November 20, 2022.
  7. Vonder Haar C, Martens KM, Riparip L-K, Rosi S, Wellington CL, Winstanley CA. Frontal traumatic brain injury increases impulsive decision making in rats: A potential role for the inflammatory cytokine interleukin-12. Journal of Neurotrauma. 2017;34(19):2790-2800. doi:10.1089/neu.2016.4813. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5647497/. Accessed November 20, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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