Common Serious Impulsive Behaviors in PTSD

How Impulsive Behaviors and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Are Related

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How often do you suddenly do something without (a) thinking about it first, (b) being able to control it once it starts, or (c) considering what may happen as a result of it?

That's impulsive behavior. If you have posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you're probably aware of the strong connection between your condition and impulsive behaviors.

Most of the time, you do something impulsively as a way of finding relief from a stressful feeling—for example, a painful emotion. And you may even feel better short-term. But long-term, if some of your impulsive actions have serious consequences and you keep on doing them, you may become more upset or even do yourself harm that can't be undone.

Serious impulsive behaviors include:

All these behaviors are more common in people with PTSD.

PTSD and Eating Disorders

Eating disorders are common among people who've lived through trauma. If you struggle with an eating disorder, you may be among them. Childhood sexual abuse, in particular, is a risk factor for developing an eating disorder.

People with PTSD are three times as likely as others to develop bulimia nervosa, often called simply "bulimia." Bulimia involves impulsive bouts of uncontrolled binge eating followed by vomiting (commonly called binging and purging) or by excessive exercise or other methods to burn off extra calories.

Another common eating disorder, anorexia nervosa (commonly shortened to "anorexia"). Anorexia is a kind of deliberate day-to-day starvation resulting in abnormally low body weight and featuring an intense fear of gaining weight and a distorted body image.

People with bulimia are more likely than people with anorexia to have PTSD.

PTSD and Substance Abuse

People with PTSD are more likely than others to have problems with serious impulsive behaviors related to alcohol and drugs. For example, one study found approximately 46% of people with PTSD had also experienced some kind of alcohol or substance use problems.

There are a number of reasons why PTSD may be connected with substance abuse. A common theory is that the substances are used to "self-medicate" the intense and distressing symptoms of PTSD. For example, the more severe a person's hyperarousal symptoms are, the more likely it is that they will abuse alcohol as a way of reducing those symptoms.

PTSD and Deliberate Self-Harm

People who deliberately self-harm (self-injure) impulsively cause immediate physical damage to themselves, but they aren't trying to end their lives. Typical self-harm behaviors include cutting and burning.

Many self-harming people with PTSD and others who self-harm have been through severely traumatic events such as sexual or physical abuse. They may harm themselves to temporarily escape upsetting thoughts or memories related to their trauma.

Others may self-harm as a way of actually feeling something, or creating feelings, in the face of ongoing emotional numbness.

PTSD and Suicide

People with PTSD and those who've been through physical or sexual assault have a higher risk of impulsively committing suicide. Reasons why include:

  • The symptoms of PTSD can make a person feel constantly fearful and isolated with no hope of escaping them.
  • Depression is common among people with PTSD.

Getting Help for Serious Impulsive Behaviors

If you're looking for this type of help, you can choose to explore a number of different coping skills. They include:

There are also different ways of coping with suicidal thoughts.

In addition, getting treatment for your PTSD may include help to reduce your risk of serious impulsive behaviors. You can find more information about treatment providers in your area who may offer these treatments at UCompare HealthCare.

4 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.
  1. Tull M, Weiss N, McDermott M. Post-traumatic stress disorder and impulsive and risky behavior: Overview and discussion of potential mechanismsComprehensive Guide to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders. 2016:803-816. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-08359-9_16

  2. L Strickler H. The interaction between post-traumatic stress disorders and eating disorders: A review of relevant literatureTrauma & Treatment. 2013;03(01). doi:10.4172/2167-1222.1000183

  3. Pietrzak RH, Goldstein RB, Southwick SM, Grant BF. Prevalence and Axis I comorbidity of full and partial posttraumatic stress disorder in the United States: results from Wave 2 of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related ConditionsJ Anxiety Disord. 2011;25(3):456–465. doi:10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.11.010

  4. Dixon-Gordon KL, Tull MT, Gratz KL. Self-injurious behaviors in posttraumatic stress disorder: an examination of potential moderatorsJ Affect Disord. 2014;166:359–367. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.05.033

Additional Reading

By Matthew Tull, PhD
Matthew Tull, PhD is a professor of psychology at the University of Toledo, specializing in post-traumatic stress disorder.