Behavioral Symptoms

Impulsivity: Cause and Symptom of Anxiety

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 10, 2020

Impulsivity: Cause and Symptom of Anxiety

There's nothing necessarily wrong with being impulsive. In fact, sometimes impulsivity is the right response to a situation. Impulsive is acting on your gut instinct, and there are times when you need to act on instinct to make the right decision or enjoy some activity in life.

But there are also times when impulsivity can be distressing, possibly even dangerous. When impulsivity is related to anxiety, that's a sign that you may need to do something about it.

Impulsivity is Not a Four Letter Word

Being impulsive is often considered a negative personality trait. But it's not always. When you go on a hike, and you see a trail that you've never seen before, going up that trail on a whim is impulsive and could bring you amazing memories. Impulsivity isn't necessarily a problem, especially when it brings happiness or fun decisions.

Impulsivity becomes a problem when it starts to control your actions beyond logic or happiness or starts to cause distress. It's also a condition that can both cause anxiety and be a symptom of anxiety.

Impulsivity as a Symptom

Anxiety is a condition that is generally characterized by "overthinking," so the idea that it creates impulsivity is a surprising one. But there are actually many things that anxiety does that can make a person more impulsive.

For example, anxiety can create desperation, especially as the disorder gets more severe and takes more control over the way you feel. Desperation causes poor decision making, and so people with anxiety tend to make very impulsive moves towards their treatments and coping choices.

They may use a treatment that is clearly a placebo with the hopes it may provide them with relief. They may suddenly and unexpectedly call someone that they've lost touch with because they hope that that person will somehow bring more happiness in their life. They may break up a relationship instinctually, or furiously research someone they fear has been hurt for no reason.

Anxiety can also control behaviors. The obsessive-compulsive disorder is a disorder characterized by a lack of control over impulses, where a person "must" perform some action/compulsion to get rid of their anxious thought. There are several examples of ways that impulsivity is caused by anxiety, even though anxiety, in general, is thought of as an overly cautious condition.

Impulsivity as a Cause

It's also important to remember that impulsivity can be a cause of anxiety as well. Those that are too quick to perform behaviors and activities without thoroughly thinking them through could be contributing to their own anxiety development.

Those with bipolar disorder often suffer from mania where impulsivity is rampant. Those with mania may be sexually or behaviorally impulsive and end up with regrets that increase future anxiety.

But it's not just mania either. Sometimes impulsivity is more subtle. For example, drinking alcohol in excess on a whim because your friends asked you to go at the last minute even though you work the next day is an example of an impulsive decision that ultimately can cause more anxiety in your life.

Impulsivity is not inherently bad. There are countless examples of impulsive decisions (starting a business, going on a trail you've never seen before on a hike, etc.) that can have a great payoff and bring happiness into your life. But when your impulsivity starts to cause distress, that's when it's clear it has become a genuine problem.

How to Control Anxiety Impulsivity

Distressing impulsivity is something that does need to be controlled in its own way, especially if it causes anxiety. Luckily some of the strategies for controlling that impulsivity are also valuable for anxiety. These include:

  • Exercise Burning off energy isn't necessarily a perfect cure for your impulsivity, but less energy means less desire to utilize energy negatively. Often it's an excess of energy that creates this need to be active, and so exercising can be valuable.
  • Staying Busy Keeping yourself busy to a schedule with activities that are mentally distracting can also help. In a way, you're channeling that energy and focus on other areas where impulsivity won't matter. For example, puzzles, hiking, etc.
  • People You Trust Surrounding yourself with those that you trust is also important. Nice, kind people that do fun activities, and those that you can talk to when you have anxiety can be beneficial in keeping those impulses under control.

If your impulsive nature is really taking hold of you, don't be afraid to speak to a psychologist. There are many reasons for impulsivity that can be dealt with by a trained expert.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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