How to Deal With Our Impulses

Have you ever caught yourself acting in a way you don’t want or in a manner you know you shouldn’t– yet, for some reason, you’re unable to stop yourself?  You’re not alone. We’re all impulsive people, to some degree, and its, often, very easy to entice us to react. We can see this in malls, where shiny products are placed by the cashier. Often, we end up buying things we don’t actually need. While a certain amount of impulsivity is normal, it’s important to keep it from becoming habitual. Here, we’ll try to clarify why we, sometimes, engage in these types of behaviors, as well as suggest some courses of action to help regain control.

What is impulsive behavior and why is it so difficult to control it?

The word impulse refers to the urge to do something. Impulsive behavior can be a mark of bipolar personality disorder, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and it is also included in a category for Disruptive, Impulse-Control, and Conduct Disorders. They all involve problems with controlling emotions and behaviors. It is generally defined as “actions taken without previous consideration for consequences, poorly or prematurely expressed and high risk, with outcomes usually unforeseen and undesirable outcomes, usually leading to regret”.

 If you’ve noticed impulsive behavior in yourself, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have a mental disorder. Impulsivity is a common trait in all of us and we all have a  certain degree of being reactive. We simply want to bring awareness to it, so we can avoid it as much as possible.

Idit Shalev and Michael Sulkowski, researchers from Yale University and Florida University, respectively, have done extensive study on  impulsive behaviors. They’ve discovered that the brain nucleus, located in the decision-making part of the brain, takes a detour and looks for the quickest way to get what it wants or needs, without much thought or work. This has a lot to do with our present emotional state, since during this process the brain releases certain chemicals that clouds our judgement, making it that much harder for us to see things in perspective and take time to consider our actions.

I believe we can all relate to some of the components of impulsive behavior:

–       Low self-control: binge eating, smoking, drinking, gambling

–       Low perseverance: because we’re looking for excitement, it can be very difficult to complete a task if that’s considered boring in anyway. Procrastinations is an example of this.

–       Searching for new experiences: to be constantly looking for an intense experience, regardless if it is positive or negative.

What can we do to break the cycle of impulsiveness?

As mentioned, changing a habit isn’t always easy.  It’s completely normal to relapse when trying to change a behavior. We should be persistent, yet, compassionate with ourselves along the way. Treat yourself like you would treat any other friend who’s attempting to grow. 

Be Mindful

Mindfulness meditation has many benefits. And in this case, in particular, it is a tool we can use to observe our thoughts, our triggers and emotions. You can start very small. For example: Have you ever begun a meditation practice, got yourself in the perfect comfortable position, the time is right, everything is conducive for the practice….and then the tip of your nose starts itching? Our normal impulse is to get out of the position and simply scratch it. Try something different. Perhaps, wait for as long as you can, observe how this itching feels, where did it start, is it spreading or is localized? How do you feel? Frustrated, angry? Be very curious and compassionate with yourself and you’ll see that this itch might resolve on its own.


Having someone to talk to is always a good idea, especially if you feel like your impulsiveness is out of hand. It’s important and useful to know the causes of your behavior, your triggers, and how it started and developed. A professional can help you make sense of things and look at them with a different perspective. If it’s not possible to go to a therapist, try to talk to friends and loved ones. Ask them what they think of your behavior. This can also help you see yourself in a different light.

Make a Plan

Think about your impulsive behavior triggers. Try to plan your life around them–build strategies to avoid the behavior or mitigate its impact. For example, if you’re prone to binge eating, don’t buy junk food. Try to fill your kitchen with health snacks. If you are an impulsive shopper,  you can “forget” your wallet at home or change the path you normally take to and from work, in order to avoid shopping areas. In short, try to adapt your environment so it can help you to stay the course.

What about you? Do you identify with some of this behavior? Share with us if you have any tips or suggestions that help you deal with this.

Leave a Reply