Impulse control

Cheryl Lim, LMHC November 18, 2022

What is an impulse and what is impulse control?

Chances are you’ve experienced an impulse, or the sudden urge or desire to do something that is unreflected or without forethought. Acting on impulses can lead to negative or unfavorable outcomes, but many people have the ability to resist urges and temptations, and we call this impulse control. While we all act on impulse at one point or another, those with impulse control issues find it difficult to limit certain behaviors and feel very little control over their actions, especially when things are happening quickly.

What does impulse control look like?

Imagine receiving a frustrating email at the end of a rough day, and despite really wanting to “let them have it” with your reply, you stop, reflect and draft a proper response. That is impulse control. (And yeah, it can be tough!)

What do impulse control issues look like?

Have you ever stubbed your toe on a chair and kicked it out of pain and frustration? Have you ever hit a door or wall when angry? Destroying your own or someone else’s property in the spur of the moment is impulsive behavior. Often, impulsivity is an unplanned action taken as a reaction to a stressor or negative stimulus. Behaving impulsively from time to time does not equate to a disorder (we all have our moments). But when someone is chronically unable to exercise self control it may point to an impulse control disorder. 

A surprising example of impulsivity: oversharing, which is expressing more than you actually want to or what we call “foot-in-mouth syndrome.” This happens when you aren’t reflecting on what you say before you say it. 

Another tell-tale sign of impulse control disorder is participating in risky activities and may look like:

  • aggression towards yourself or others
  • substance use
  • gambling
  • stealing
  • compulsive lying 
  • seeking out dangerous situations to induce an adrenaline rush

Impulsivity can also manifest as binge eating, excessive spending and constantly starting and quitting things (like activities/projects/groups). 

What makes us impulsive? 

Many researchers have tried to understand and explain impulsivity, which has led to several different theories and explanations. Impulsivity is sometimes chalked up to simply not being thoughtful with actions. Impulsivity has also been linked to low inhibition and the inability to evaluate the consequences of actions. This can be due to altered states from drug use, stress or even personality traits. 

Impulses can be harder to control when we have a need or want for instant gratification. Think of the infamous Stanford marshmallow experiment where children were given a marshmallow and instructed to wait a few minutes to eat it while the researcher left the room. They were promised an extra marshmallow if they were able to endure the wait. 

Impulsivity, like many other behaviors, can be something learned in our upbringing depending on family history of impulsivity. Impulsive behaviors can be reinforced by having few or no consequences in childhood. Reactivity can also be learned behavior and if you were raised in a reactive home, it can be hard to respond in a different way. 

The emotional response of acting on impulse might be “thrilling” and reinforces a dependency on high intensity, high emotion experiences. We can get stuck in cycles where we are in relationships/roles where reactivity and impulsivity becomes very familiar (in the form of fights and misconduct) and not being impulsive might feel boring. 

It is also important to note that many conditions and disorders can make impulse control more difficult. Some characteristics associated with ADHD relate to difficulty with impulsive control, like calling out in class, interrupting or getting out of your seat. Impulsivity is recognized as a diagnostic criterion for several disorders, meaning different disorders can increase impulsivity, making impulse control issues more likely for certain groups of people. Impulsive eating, emotional reactivity and high risk behaviors are just some examples that can be explained by other underlying disorders.

How to improve your impulse control

If you find yourself often reactive in the moment, then panicking or regretting it after, you might benefit from honing your impulse control. While our impulsive decisions may be based on temporary feelings, the effect of these actions may be longer term, so it is important to explore why you might want to gain better impulse control and how it can be beneficial to your life. 

Here are some tips for getting impulsivity under control:

  • An important first step to honing impulse control is understanding your inner motivation and processing how being impulsive has negatively affected you. Maybe you’d like to have more freedom or control over your actions and do things you want to do.
  • 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!

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