What is impulsivity?

Impulsivity refers to acting suddenly without conscious consideration of the potential impact of these behaviours on oneself or others around them. While it is common for people to behave impulsively on occasion, recurrent impulsive behaviours can significantly disrupt relationships, employment and overall wellbeing.

There is a wide variety of impulsive behaviours, including the following:

  • Impulse spending, where individuals make unplanned purchases without thought for their financial situation.
  • Reckless driving, where decisions are made hastily without regard for safety.
  • Binge eating and/or drinking, regarding excessive consumption of food/alcohol.
  • Unsafe sexual decisions, engaging in sex without protection methods or in potentially dangerous situations.
  • Emotional outbursts, where crying, yelling and other similar displays of emotion are frequent responses.
  • Aggressive behaviours, including arguments or physical altercations that have escalated from minor disagreements.
  • Suddenly changing plans and/or starting fresh, where individuals find it difficult to stick to one plan, one job or one place.
  • Self-harm, occurring when an individual feels emotionally overwhelmed.

Are recurrent impulsive behaviours indicative of any disorders?

Repeatedly engaging in impulsive behaviours is one of the diagnostic criteria for the following disorders in adults:

Additionally, while impulsivity is not explicitly outlined as a symptom, recent research has associated frequent impulsive behaviours with post-traumatic stress disorders.

It is important to note that impulsivity is one of many diagnostic criteria that psychologists would use in order to evaluate an individual for the above disorders. Conversely, frequent impulsivity is not always indicative of a disorder and may have other causes, such as stroke, brain injury or neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Individuals may also possess higher impulsivity as a lifelong personality trait.

How can the Melbourne psychologists at Cova Psychology help me deal with impulsivity?

The psychologists at Cova will work with you to explore your pattern of impulsivity. Sessions with one of our clinicians to address impulsive behaviours might include elements from one or more of the following evidence-based therapeutic approaches for impulsivity:

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): CBT may be used to focus on identifying and replacing negative thought patterns and behaviours associated with impulsive actions. Your clinician will work with you to develop alternative, more helpful responses to your impulses.
  • Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT): Applying DBT in treating impulsivity may involve increasing awareness of your impulses and any surrounding emotions, with the ultimate aim of improving emotional regulation. DBT also incorporates techniques for managing distress tolerance and expanding interpersonal skills, which may positively contribute to decreased impulsive behaviours.
  • Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT centres on increasing psychological flexibility, where you may work towards accepting unwanted thoughts and feelings rather than reacting impulsively to them. Additionally, ACT may be used to help you in clarifying your values and committing to actions that align with these values, promoting the reduction of impulsive behaviours.
  • Mindfulness based therapies: Mindfulness-based therapies centre on increasing your present-moment awareness and non-judgmental acceptance of your thoughts, emotions, and impulses. Your clinician will create a safe space for you to practice mindfulness exercises in the therapy room, allowing space for observation and promoting behaviours that are more intentional.
  • Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR): Impulsive urges may be associated with previous traumatic experiences and if this is the case, a trauma processing therapy such as EMDR might be helpful.
  • Schema Therapy or Internal Family System Therapy: These therapies can assist in managing impulsivity by conceptualising our impulsive urges as being driven by a “part” of the mind or a “mode” we go into. This can be help us better identify when our impulsivity might be triggered as well as provide us with a more effective way of relating our impulsive urges.

Assessment and diagnosis for disorders

If you believe that the impulsive behaviours you are engaging in may be indicative of a disorder, our psychologists are able to assist in assessment and diagnosis. Please get in touch with us to discuss our assessment processes further.

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