As ADHD specialists, we get a lot of questions about impulsivity and ADHD. If you have traits of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or you were recently diagnosed, you may wonder what impulsivity means and whether all people with ADHD are impulsive.
Let’s start with a basic definition and some examples of impulsivity. Cognitively, impulsivity is an inability to inhibit behavioral impulses and thoughts. Impulsive people tend to act before they think. They are prone to interrupting others, saying things they don’t mean, and making commitments they’re unable to keep. Without meaning to, they sometimes put themselves into risky situations. They might also overindulge in things like shopping, eating, intoxicating substances, or sex.
Do you see yourself in any of the above examples of impulsivity? Everyone struggles with impulsiveness from time to time, but it’s a constant struggle for some people.
The connection between ADHD and impulsivity in adults
First, we should address a common myth—that all people with ADHD are impulsive and hyperactive.
For many people, “impulsive” is their default setting. It is a common trait among the general population. It is also ubiquitous among people with ADHD. However, ADHD does not always make you impulsive. Many people with ADHD don’t have any significant problems with inhibition despite their difficulties with things like controlling their focus or sustaining their attention.
You can have ADHD and not be impulsive. Unless impulsivity is getting in the way of accomplishing your goals, it’s not something you need to worry about. On the other hand, perhaps your impulsiveness is threatening your health, career, relationships, or other parts of your life.
10 strategies for managing impulsive ADHD in adults
While impulsivity isn’t easy to overcome, it can be managed effectively given some effort and the right tools. The following strategies can help you identify your triggers and learn how to control ADHD-related impulsivity.
1. Show yourself compassion
Don’t forget: you’re only human, and you’re trying the best you can. It takes practice to overcome impulsive ADHD in adults, so don’t worry about making mistakes. Treat setbacks as a learning opportunity and use the information you gain to plan future improvements and continued experimentation.
Slow and steady wins the race. You can’t overcome impulsivity overnight, and you don’t need to. With patience and self-compassion, you can avoid shame spirals as you make steady progress toward your goals. By practicing self-compassion, not only will you avoid shame spirals, you’ll also help decrease negative emotions that can sometimes exacerbate impulsivity.
2. Identify weak spots
In what ways and in which environments do you most commonly lose your inhibitions? Depending on your personality, you’ll likely have unique weak spots. Make a list of past situations in which you were impulsive and identify which were the most problematic. Then try to figure out what your triggers are.
For example, if impulsive eating is a weak spot for you, you should ask yourself where you usually are when you overindulge. At home? At work? At a restaurant? What usually happens right before you take that first bite? Does someone offer you something? Do you feel bored, lonely, or stressed? This information can help you come up with a plan.
3. Remove triggers
Sometimes triggers are physical. If it’s hard for you to have one chip without scarfing down the entire bag, don’t keep chips in the house or only buy one snack-sized bag per week. You can also store the bag at the back of the cupboard so you don’t see it every time you look for food.
In other cases, triggers are emotional or situational. For example, you might feel the impulse to insult your boss anytime your work is critiqued. If your boss is abrasive and highly critical, do whatever you can to limit the time you spend with that person and don’t initiate unnecessary conversations.
4. Create obstacles
What barriers can you set up between you and your impulsive behaviors? If you tend to overspend when you go shopping, make that impossible by bringing only enough cash for what you need. If you are worried that you’ll bring home a stranger the next time you go to the bar, make that more challenging by having a responsible friend along.
You can also leave physical reminders for yourself that force you to pause before acting on impulses. For example, you could put a sticky note on the front of your liquor cabinet that says, “Reminder: I only drink on weekends so I don’t feel hungover at work.” That way, you have to see the note before you can get to the bottle.
5. Create a gap between impulse and action
Create time to think things through before actually doing them. It’s often difficult for people with ADHD to pause or slow down, so it can be helpful to find alternative activities (e.g., a trip to the restroom, a quick walk) to fill the gap between impulse and action. The more of a delay you can create, the better, especially for big decisions. You might even make a 24-hour rule for yourself.
That said, even a few moments of consideration can be enough to help inhibit an impulse. If you are in the habit of interrupting people or agreeing too quickly to requests, force yourself to take one deep breath first. Try carrying a water bottle around with you. When you get the impulse to speak too quickly, take a drink. You can also practice various filler phrases to buy time: “Hmm, that’s an interesting thought,” or “Well, I’ll have to think about that,” or “Huh, so what you’re proposing is (repeat what they said).”
6. Imagine the future
Use the interruptions and delays you create to consider the potential consequences of your actions (and whether those consequences would be reversible). No one knows the future, but you can make pretty accurate predictions by thinking back to your impulsive moments in the past. If openly criticizing your manager’s ideas in a meeting didn’t go well last time, the next time probably won’t be any better.
When you feel an impulse to do or say something, ask yourself whether it would be helpful, healthy, and safe. Can you think of a way to improve the consequences? Imagine how you would feel after acting on your impulse (perhaps regretful or shameful) versus how you would feel if you reacted more thoughtfully (competent and confident). Use visual reminders if it helps. For example, if you’re saving up for a vacation but you struggle with online shopping, tape a picture of your vacation destination on your computer screen so you see it each time you use your computer.
7. Learn emotional management skills
Strong emotions can make it harder to inhibit yourself from immediately acting on a thought. For example, if you’re angry, you’ll be much more likely to say something hurtful to your partner that you’ll regret later.
There are various things you can do that will help you regulate your emotions more effectively, including exercise, self-care, and mindfulness practices. Mindfulness can be particularly effective since it can calm you down while enabling self-monitoring. Find a mindfulness strategy that works for you—whether it be guided imagery, a walking meditation, or breathing exercises—and do it as often as possible. Grounding techniques tend to work really well for many of our clients.
8. Plan ahead
Using the strategies above, brainstorm ways of avoiding, mitigating, and managing your most troublesome weak spots. Create a plan for each one and add it to your list of weak spots/triggers. You can use one strategy for each weak spot/trigger or combine several.
Treat your contingency plans as works in progress and revisit them often. If one strategy isn’t working, try implementing it differently or try a new one. Don’t limit yourself to this strategies list; get creative and develop your own coping strategies. It might also help to visit online forums to learn from other adults’ experiences with ADHD and impulsivity.
9. Keep the right company
It might be a blast to shop with your best friend, but if she is an impulsive shopper, she might unintentionally rub off on you. Here’s another example: If seeing your high school buddy’s political Facebook posts tempt you to quickly reply with a snarky comment, adjust your app settings so you don’t have to see that person’s posts anymore.
You don’t have to cut people out of your life if they add value to it! Having support from the people around you can help you succeed in your self-improvement efforts. However, we do recommend you consider the influence other people may be having over you and being strategic about who comes along for potentially triggering activities.
10. Consider professional support
People who don’t know what it’s like to have ADHD may not be very understanding. They don’t realize how hard you’re already trying, so they might assume you just don’t care or are being intentionally rude.
That’s why it’s so important to work with an experienced adult ADHD specialist. The evidence-based strategies, unbiased perspective, and consistent support a therapist provides can significantly accelerate your progress. A licensed therapist can also refer you to a prescribing physician if you want to explore medication as an option.
Make conscious, thoughtful choices
If you feel like you need more individualized support in managing your ADHD-driven impulsivity, working with an adult ADHD specialist could be helpful. Reach out to our psychologists for a free 20 minute phone consultation to see how they can help you: Dr. Lee, Dr. Barajas, and Dr. Goldman.