Wait! Don’t Let Impulsivity Get Ahead of You!

 ADHD Weekly 2017-03-16

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What do road rage, illegal drug use, overspending, poor social relations, and stealing all have in common? Each activity can be the result of impulsivity due to ADHD gone badly. Impulsivity, taking hasty actions without first thinking about the consequences, is one of the core symptoms of ADHD. 

Not all impulsivity is bad, however; it can sometimes be useful. According to Catharine Winstanley, PhD, and colleagues, not all instances of impulsivity are negative.

“Impulsivity is a characteristic of human behavior that can be both beneficial and detrimental to our everyday lives,” she writes. “For example, the ability to act on impulse may allow us to seize a valuable opportunity, or to make a disastrous decision that we then live to regret.” 

Impulsivity can negatively affect many actions in life, including:

  • aggression and lashing out toward others without thinking, both verbally and physically 
  • overspending or buying things on a whim can lead to financial problems, including bankruptcy
  • unsafe driving practices, such as speeding or road rage, can result in accidents and tickets
  • the urge to blurt things out can result in awkward social situations
  • risky sexual behaviors
  • following through with suicidal thoughts

What can you do to manage your impulsivity?

Practice mindfulness. Stephanie Sarkis, PhD, discussed impulsivity with Lidia Zylowska, MD, for Psychology Today. Dr. Zylowska is the author of The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD on the benefits of mindfulness for adults with ADHD. 

Dr. Zylowska points out that mindfulness helps us learn to “step back and observe our thoughts and feelings so they don’t overly drive our sense of self or understanding of our life.” 

Dr. Zylowska explains further that mindfulness helps people become “more self-aware, less driven by unhelpful, automatic reactions,” and learn self-regulation. Mindfulness “is very helpful in learning to have a more flexible mind and in controlling impulsive reactions,” she says.

Rehearse situations where you may be more impulsive. Whether at work or in social situations, practicing helps you anticipate the problems that regularly trigger your impulsive reactions, and then develop routines for coping with these situations. You can work with a trusted friend to roleplay these scenarios and practice different solutions. You can also take meditation classes or join meditation groups to learn the practice of mindfulness in everyday living.

Work with a coach or therapist. These professionals can also help you develop coping strategies to curtail your impulsivity. They can help you roleplay situations. For help finding a professional who treats ADHD, visit Professionals Who Diagnose and Treat ADHD.

Get tips to curb impulsive spending. For an adult affected by ADHD, overspending can happen spontaneously and without warning. We have some helpful tips for managing your money and strategies to help you resist impulse buying. Visit Managing Money and ADHD for ideas on successfully managing your budget.

Bring a “wingman” with you. In flight combat, a wingman is the pilot who supports the forward pilot in potentially dangerous situations by flying along the forward plane’s wing. Today, a “wingman” is the friend who watches out for you and helps you avoid potentially dangerous social situations. You can plan ahead of time to designate a signal between you and your wingman that lets you know when you may be on the verge of making bad choices. Alternately, your friend can signal that you need help getting out of an awkward situation.

How do you handle impulsivity?

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on March 16, 2017.