ADHD Symptom Spotlight: Impulsivity

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ADHD Symptom Spotlight is a series that dives deep into a hallmark or overlooked symptom of ADHD each week. This series is written by experts who also share their tips on managing these symptoms based on firsthand experience and research-backed insights.

Both inattentive and hyperactive subtypes of ADHD are prone to impulse control problems. This impulsivity can come in handy in rare situations where they need to think on their feet, but it generally puts them at risk of making poor choices and taking unnecessary risks.

To understand why impulsivity is a characteristic of ADHD, it’s important to understand the science behind how impulses happen and how the brain typically controls them.

The Neurobiology of Impulses and Impulse Control

The human brain uses a complex system of “happy” hormones to make decisions about what to do. These hormones reinforce behaviors that make you feel good, but they each function in slightly different ways, triggering different kinds of responses.

When it comes to impulses, the science so far suggests two happy hormones, in particular, are at play: dopamine and serotonin.

In extremely oversimplified terms, dopamine is the “go” signal. It’s the motivational coach in your head encouraging you to do certain activities and to keep going. Meanwhile, serotonin is the “no go” signal. It’s the Zen monk in your head, letting you know when you’ve done enough and it’s time to stop and enjoy the state of contentment you’ve achieved.

In a healthy brain, the balance between the two is relatively stable, where the person gets just enough motivational dopamine to do what they need to do and a healthy amount of serotonin to make them feel satisfied with what they’ve accomplished and avoid making rash decisions.

Then, when the occasion calls for it, each hormone has the ability to override the either. When dopamine overrides serotonin, it’s pushing you to indulge in an impulse and ignore the “no go” signal serotonin is sending you. When serotonin overrides dopamine, it’s practicing impulse control, telling you to ignore that “go” signal the dopamine is giving you.

Both processes have their function. The ability to resist impulses can save you from taking unnecessary risks or making bad choices. Meanwhile, the ability to have and act on impulses can be useful in extreme situations where you need to react quickly and make snap decisions.

Dopamine and Serotonin Imbalances in ADHD Make Impulse Control Difficult

For people with ADHD, that balance is nonexistent. During ordinary tasks, a low number of dopamine receptors in the brain prevent people with ADHD from getting that “go” signal. This lack of motivation means they’re liable to procrastinate, struggle with making decisions, and find it hard to make themselves start or stay on task.

In one study on impulsivity, low activity levels in dopamine receptors were linked to increased impulsive behavior. The reason is that when dopamine release was stimulated, it triggered even higher amounts of the hormone in these normally dopamine-deficient brains than it did in the less impulsive group.

In those unpredictable moments when dopamine release is stimulated, then, a flood of the motivational hormone leaves the person feeling overwhelmed with the need to do the thing that triggered the dopamine flood.

ADHD brains may also have low numbers of serotonin receptors, impairing their ability to resist an impulse. So when those impulses happen, they’re stronger than usual and occur in a brain with a weakened impulse control mechanism.

While the research on exactly how those floods of dopamine are triggered is still scarce, one recent study found a possible link to emotional escalation. Events that trigger sudden and intense emotions—like panic, anger, or euphoria—may trigger higher amounts of dopamine.

What Does Impulsivity Look Like in ADHD?

ADHD-related impulsivity takes a lot of forms, with some impulsive behavior more obvious than others. Some of the most common ways impulsivity manifests in ADHD include:

  • Spur-of-the-moment decision-making
  • Interrupting people during conversations
  • Acting or speaking without thinking first
  • Starting tasks without planning first
  • Racing thoughts that are hard to control
  • Lack of patience
  • Difficulty saving money (or generally working toward long-term goals)
  • Risky, self-destructive behavior

Impulsiveness feels like this intense, fiery drive to do something. There’s no time to wait, no time to plan, no time to consider whether you actually should do the thing. You just have to go do it. Trying to resist it is like standing in the middle of a bonfire and trying not to leap out of it. The urge is too intense and you feel like you will burn up if you don’t indulge it.

Sometimes, you have the foresight to know the impulse is a bad one, but most of the time you aren’t even really thinking about whether it’s a good or bad idea until after the fact.

Over the long term, your more self-destructive impulses can leave you with heavy guilt and regret. But even the milder forms of impulsivity, like blurting out statements, can strain your friendships, get you in trouble at work, and make it hard to maintain positive, stable relationships in all areas of life.

How to Improve Impulse Control When You Have ADHD

ADHD might make impulses feel stronger and reduce your ability to control them, but with practice, you can get better at managing your impulses. The key is to distinguish between good and bad impulses, and focus most of your energy on resisting the bad ones. Here are a few strategies that can help.

Exercise Regularly

Studies show that regular aerobic exercise can help reduce all symptoms of ADHD, including impulsivity. Find fun activities that get your heart rate up and try to spend around 30 minutes to an hour each day doing those.

This won’t cure your impulse control problems but it can help lessen the intensity so that it’s a little easier to resist.

Do a Personal Inventory to Reflect on Past Impulsive Behavior

Reflect on past moments of impulsivity to figure out what your triggers might be and how you might have acted differently to handle the situation better. It can be tough to think about, but reflecting on past experiences is one of the best ways to figure out a plan for avoiding those mistakes in the future.

Do this regularly until you’ve identified your most problematic impulsive behaviors and grasped some idea of when you’re most likely to become impulsive. This increased self-awareness can help you anticipate high-risk situations and figure out personalized strategies for diffusing those impulses.

Train Your Impulse Endurance

With ADHD, an impaired impulse control mechanism makes resisting impulses feel impossible. But, with practice, you can build up some tolerance. A mental trick you can try is telling yourself that you can act on the impulse but first, you want to see how long you can hold off. Knowing that you can give in when it becomes overwhelming can make it less daunting to try to delay the impulse.

Meanwhile, the more you practice at least delaying those impulses, the better you get at controlling them. Eventually, you’ll be able to use that delay to consider whether this is even an impulse worth indulging. If not, thinking about the consequences can help decrease the desire to do it, eventually allowing the impulse to pass.

Complicate Your Impulse Decisions

ADHD brains often avoid complex or delayed-reward tasks because the motivation isn’t strong enough. So you can leverage one ADHD symptom against the other by making impulsive behaviors harder to execute, thereby forcing your impulsiveness to battle your executive dysfunction for dominance. Here are some ways to do that:

  • Enforce a cooling-off period. If you want to buy a new outfit, leave it on the rack for now. Tell yourself you can come back in, say, a week if you still want it.
  • Add extra steps. Instead of buying junk food while doing your normal grocery shopping, leave it for when you have the craving. Sure, you can have ice cream. But you have to go all the way back to the store to get it (if possible, enforce a rule that you have to walk instead of drive).
  • Bring cash only on nights out. If you tend to overspend when you go out with friends, leave your cards at home and just bring the amount you’ve budgeted for the night in cash.
  • Bring a notebook to meetings. If you’re prone to blurting things out in meetings, write those things down in your notes first. That way, you’ll have them there to bring up later when you can speak without interrupting someone. Similarly, in text conversations, you can write out your responses to friends in a notetaking app first during more sensitive or difficult conversations where you don’t want to carelessly hit send before considering how your words will impact the other person.

For each of the impulsive behaviors you identified during that personal inventory, think of similar strategies for complicating them to give you more time to consider your actions.

Accept Some Degree of Impulsivity

To some degree, impulsivity can be healthy, exciting, and productive. There’s nothing wrong with being the spontaneous friend who wants to try new activities or the coworker who proposes a creative change to ineffective processes at work.

The key is learning to recognize good and bad impulses—and doing that requires some honest and thorough self-reflection on your past behavior. When did your impulsiveness lead to good outcomes and when was it disastrous?

Focus your energy on controlling the disastrous impulses and let the positive or neutral ones slide.

Channel Your Impulsivity

Finding ways to let impulsivity exist in life is important for ADHD brains instead of trying to always lessen or "cure" it. You may even be able to use those impromptu actions to your advantage—what's referred to as functional impulsivity. Some hobbies or activities where that functional impulsivity can be an advantage include:

  • Gymnastics. In addition to getting you up and moving, gymnastics is an activity that requires the kind of quick and decisive action that someone who’s naturally more impulsive would be good at. You can’t do a backflip in slow motion. You just have to leap into it. If gymnastics doesn’t appeal to you, you could also try martial arts, pole dancing, or figure skating.
  • Tennis. Like gymnastics, tennis requires a lot of quick and decisive movements because you’re darting from point to point on the court to strike the ball. Matches are also relatively fast-paced and short, which is good for people who struggle with losing interest in activities too easily. You can play a match or two and then head home for the day before you get bored. Other racket sports like squash, badminton, or table tennis are good options for the same reasons.
  • Tabletop role-playing games. For a less physically-demanding option, tabletop RPGs (like the popular Dungeons & Dragons) are great. I really enjoy them because they put you into a fictional world with a constant series of ever-changing high-stakes scenarios (the kind of scenarios ADHD brains thrive in): fighting hordes of angry goblins, negotiating a peace treaty with orcs, or navigating a booby-trapped cave in search of treasures. Often, success hinges on being able to make spur-of-the-moment decisions and adapting quickly when your plans go awry. But even when your impulses lead you astray, the consequences are all in-game, so no real-world harm is done. There are online groups you can join, but you can also check your local hobby shops for regular in-person meetups.
  • Arts and crafts. Painting, drawing, woodworking, ceramics, jewelry-making, the list goes on. Any creative hobby you can think of is a great way to channel your impulsivity because you can make what you want, with whatever materials you want, in whatever timeframe you want. Because you’re doing it as a hobby, there are also no external demands or constraints on what you make. You can draw a hyper-realistic cityscape or throw paint wildly at a canvas. Carefully craft a matching set of bowls or free-hand an abstract sculpture. Creative hobbies let you turn impulses into works of art.

Incorporating one of these or a similar hobby into your life is a good way to practice embracing your impulsiveness and learn to recognize how and when it can be beneficial. 

7 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.