How to get impulsive behavior under control
Everyone makes rash decisions sometimes, whether to shake off a bad mood, out of anger or frustration, or simply for spontaneous fun. But for some people, impulsive behavior can be more extreme than a dramatic haircut or occasionally snapping at your partner.
If you constantly find yourself acting without thinking things through, there’s a range of techniques you can test out to calm your impulsive decision-making. But if your behavior is starting to affect your work or relationships, it may be time to seek professional help.
What is impulsive behavior?
Impulsive behavior is acting without thinking about the consequences, and there are different levels of impulsivity. For some people, impulsivity might mean taking a spontaneous trip, making spur-of-the-moment purchases, or making sudden big life decisions. Impulsivity can also include more dangerous or aggressive behaviors, like stealing, sudden violence, or participating in risky sexual behaviors.
Some impulsive behaviors may be smaller in scale, like blurting out your thoughts, lying, or constantly interrupting others. Although not as destructive, this type of behavior can still have negative consequences on your life, work, and relationships.
How can you calm your impulses?
There are several interventions that can be effective at curbing impulsive and risk-taking behavior. If you’re struggling with impulsivity, consider the following approaches:
This time-tested strategy helps sharpen self-awareness by encouraging you to focus your attention on the present moment and accept your thoughts and feelings without judgment. This technique helps you distance yourself from your urges and their triggers, which may allow you the space to decide to take a different course of action.
Practicing how to recognize and name an urge before it comes is a useful technique. For example, "This is anger I am feeling, and it’s making me want to pick a fight with my spouse.” From there, you can work to identify other, healthier outlets for your urges.
Avoid situations that trigger impulsive behavior
If your route to work takes you past a store where you often impulse shop, take a different route. If you find yourself interrupting your co-workers in Zoom meetings, keep yourself on mute. Try to adapt your environment to make problematic impulsive behavior more difficult.
Ask for help
Commit to talking to a trusted friend or family member before making any big decision. Ask their advice, and talk through your thought process.
Create alternate outlets for your impulsivity
If you’re prone to interrupting during meetings, keep a pad and pen with you to write down your thoughts as they come. If you pick fights with your spouse whenever you get irritated, commit to an exercise routine like boxing or running that helps you process your thoughts and release frustration.
What can cause impulsive behavior?
There are many potential causes of chronic (regular) impulsive behavior. If you’re struggling to control impulsive behaviors, it’s important to understand the cause so you can best take action.
Researchers are studying whether impulsivity is genetically inherited. Several genes have been identified that may cause a predisposition for impulsive behavior and less self-control.
Your environment can also be a risk factor for impulsivity. People with a history of trauma are more likely to engage in impulsive behavior due to changes in executive function (i.e. a set of mental skills that includes self-control). Because trauma can impede your ability to effectively regulate your emotions, you may become predisposed to act rashly in stressful situations.
Mental Health Conditions
Impulsivity can be a symptom of a range of mental health conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), bipolar disorder,post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), antisocial personality disorder, and others. This can result from imbalances in levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, as well as executive dysfunction.
There are also certain impulse control disorders (ICDs), including kleptomania, intermittent explosive disorder, pyromania, and trichotillomania, which are defined by specific, regular impulsive behaviors, like stealing, aggressive outbursts, fire-setting, and pulling out hair.
Substance Use Issues
Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to increased risky behavior and impulsive actions, either during intoxication or during withdrawal, depending on the substance. Becoming dependent on a substance can also lead to a chronic pattern of impulsivity.
If you're anxious about your own impulsive behavior, it can be tempting to self-diagnose a mental health condition or other cause to explain your symptoms. However, mental health conditions are often quite complex. You deserve an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.
If you’re concerned about a possible mental health condition causing your impulsive behavior, it’s important to seek the care of a professional as soon as possible.
When is it time to seek professional support?
The techniques outlined in this article have been demonstrated to effectively help curb impulsive behaviors. However, depending on the cause of your impulsivity, you may need additional help. Impulsive behavior caused by an underlying mental health condition, a substance abuse problem, or unresolved trauma needs professional care and treatment. If your impulsive behavior is affecting your work, relationships, or everyday life, it may be time to seek out a psychiatrist.
Antidepressants, including SSRIs and SNRIs, can be effective at curbing impulsive behavior in people with certain underlying mental health conditions. Depending on your specific condition, your psychiatrist may also recommend other medications to treat your symptoms. They may also recommend other supportive therapies, including talk therapy.
Generally led by a therapist, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of talk therapy that’s been demonstrated to have a positive effect on impulse control. This technique helps you understand the relationship between your thoughts and your behaviors, so you can re-route impulses in a healthier direction.
Getting started at Talkiatry
With Talkiatry, you can see a psychiatrist from the comfort of your home, and you can schedule your first appointment in a matter of days. During your initial 60-minute introductory consultation, your psychiatrist will be able to provide a diagnosis of your condition, if you have one. For anyone suffering from out-of-control impulsive behavior caused by an underlying mental health condition, this is a critical first step to managing your symptoms and feeling better.
To get started, take our free online assessment, to see if Talkiatry is right for you and get matched with a psychiatrist.
Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care. Co-founded by a patient and a triple-board-certified psychiatrist, Talkiatry has over 300 doctors, 60 insurance partners, and first visits available in days. We treat patients with anxiety, depression, trauma, ADHD, and more. Get started with a short online assessment.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.
Dr. Nidhi Sharoha is a double board certified psychiatrist in Psychiatry and Consultation Liaison Psychiatry. She completed her undergraduate training at Stony Brook University followed by medical school at New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has completed both a Residency in Psychiatry and Fellowship in Consultation Liaison Psychiatry at Nassau University Medical Center.
Dr. Sharoha has held academic appointment at Stony Brook University Hospital, practicing as a consultant psychiatrist as well as the Associate Director of Consultation Liaison Psychiatry Fellowship Program. She has been deeply involved in teaching throughout her years
She has a genuine interest in treating a vast array of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, post traumatic stress disorders and obsessive compulsive and related disorders. She also has experience in treating patients with medical comorbidities and has training in issues related to women’s health.
Patients looking for a psychiatric provider will find that Dr. Sharoha has a gentle approach to diagnosis and management of her patients. She believes in the principle that body and mind are interconnected which allows her to provide comprehensive care to all of her patients.