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Understanding Impulsivity

As a neurodivergent person, impulsivity might be one of the many things you struggle with. Understanding impulsivity and why it happens is an important step in learning to control your impulsivity.

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Have you ever wondered why you couldn't resist hitting the snooze button one more time, even though you set that early alarm with unwavering determination? Or perhaps you've found yourself reaching for that tempting treat (or your phone), only to regret it moments later. It's a relatable struggle, one that reveals some of the hidden layers of our minds.

This month, we're working on understanding what drives our impulses, those split-second decisions that seem to bypass our rational thoughts. It’s a place where our brain's emotional and logical forces collide. 

We'll be looking into the psychology, neural pathways, and even a bit of chemistry that shape these impulsive behaviors. The goal is for you to have insights that not only explain why we sometimes act on a whim but also how to regain the reins of our immediate reactions.

If you need someone in your corner join my Facebook group, Executive Function Support for Women. I will be your cheerleader.

Understanding Impulsivity

What is Impulsivity?

At its core, impulsivity is the human tendency to act swiftly and often without conscious thought. It's that spontaneous reaction that leads us to grab that extra slice of cake or make an unplanned purchase, even when we know we shouldn't. 

However, let's not confuse impulsivity with spontaneity. Spontaneity is the thrill of making a choice without extensive planning but still staying aligned with our values and goals. Impulsivity, on the other hand, might lead us down a path that doesn't quite resonate with our long-term aspirations.

Think of impulsivity as the urge to scratch an itch without considering the possibility of making it worse. It's the rapid-fire reaction that leaps before looking, often leaving us to deal with the consequences later. Spontaneity, on the other hand, involves conscious choice. You might make that decision at the spur of the moment, but you’re really choosing to. Impulse has you just doing.

In contrast, thoughtful decisions involve a conscious evaluation of options, weighing pros and cons, and considering how our actions align with our greater purpose.

Impulsivity is a characteristic many people with ADHD have. That doing without thinking thing happens often, and usually, the consequences aren’t terrible. Someone might give you the side-eye because you said something without thinking about how it would sound (and it didn’t sound good). But impulsivity can also cause long-term problems. If you routinely buy things (online or in-person) even though you can’t afford it, it will become a problem.

You want to stop, but then your one-click finger gets you.


It’s the dopamine hit. Your brain craves the dopamine. It feels good. In the moment.

Later on, not so much.

So, while impulsivity can bring a certain thrill to life, understanding its nuances helps us differentiate between the rush of the moment and the fulfillment of a well-considered choice. 

The Psychology of Impulsivity

Our minds are like a bustling marketplace of thoughts and desires, and impulsivity is the charismatic vendor that gets us to buy his useless wares. To comprehend the psychology behind our impulsive behaviors, we need to explore the intricacies that drive our actions.

Immediate Gratification and the Urge to Act

One of the driving forces behind impulsivity is the allure of immediate gratification. Imagine the sensation of unwrapping a long-awaited package or tasting a delicious treat—the surge of pleasure that floods in. Impulsivity thrives on this instant reward, often pushing us to satisfy our desires without pause.

Consider those times when you've scrolled through social media, eagerly seeking that dopamine hit from each like and comment. It's the thrill of the moment, the instant reward, that fuels the need to check and recheck, even if it means sacrificing precious time. In these instances, the promise of swift gratification outweighs the potential downsides.

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The Brain's Role

Most of us have heard about the two sides of our brain – logical and creative. We’re going to tap into that concept to understand impulsivity. We have the Prefrontal Cortex, our methodical and rational thinker, and the Limbic System, our spontaneous and emotional reactor.

Prefrontal Cortex: 

Think of the Prefrontal Cortex as the master strategist. Nestled right behind your forehead, this region is responsible for executive functions like reasoning, judgment, and long-term planning. It carefully plans everything before making a move.

When faced with a decision, the Prefrontal Cortex steps in, evaluating potential outcomes, considering consequences, and aligning choices with your broader life goals. It's the voice that says, “Hey, remember the bigger picture,” when you're tempted by a fleeting impulse.

Limbic System: 

The Limbic System is a collection of brain structures responsible for our emotional responses and immediate gratification cravings. Think of it as the passionate actor who thrives on emotion, ready to take the spotlight at a moment's notice. It's the one that flares up when you spot a tempting dessert or feel an urge to splurge during a sale.

The Limbic System thrives on instant rewards, seeking the thrill of the present moment rather than dwelling on long-term consequences. 

regions of the brain

The Brain's Balancing Act

Whenever you’re faced with a decision, these two parts perk up. The Prefrontal Cortex tugs the reins, urging careful consideration and measured responses. Meanwhile, the Limbic System twirls with enthusiasm, urging quick action based on raw emotions.

This dynamic interaction showcases the delicate balance within our minds. There are moments when the Prefrontal Cortex prevails, guiding us toward well-thought-out decisions. Other times, the Limbic System takes center stage, leading us into the realm of impulsivity. Understanding this interplay helps us recognize the driving forces behind our choices, enabling us to take a more conscious role in the unfolding drama of decision making.

The Prefrontal Cortex asks us to step back and think, while the Limbic System asks us to just do (because it feels good).

Dopamine's Influence

Get ready to meet the brain's very own superstar: dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter that knows how to steal the spotlight. This chemical messenger plays a pivotal role in driving our behaviors by creating a sensation of pleasure, often pushing us to chase those fleeting moments of happiness.

Imagine dopamine as the brain's high-five, rewarding us for actions that promote survival and pleasure. When we accomplish something meaningful or experience something enjoyable, our brain releases dopamine, and we're flooded with that warm, contented feeling. It's like a pat on the back, encouraging us to continue engaging in activities that benefit us.

Now, let's add a twist to the story. Dopamine doesn't just respond to grand achievements; it also gets triggered by immediate gratification, so dopamine plays a significant role in reinforcing impulsive behaviors.

Dopamine's Role in Impulsivity

When we give in to an impulsive urge, like snagging that last piece of chocolate or splurging on a spontaneous purchase, our brain interprets this action as a mini-accomplishment. It responds by releasing dopamine, causing us to feel that surge of pleasure and reward.

Consider the world of online shopping. You spot a pair of shoes that you don't necessarily need, but the excitement of acquiring something new triggers a dopamine release. This sensation becomes a powerful incentive, encouraging you to indulge your impulse and make the purchase.

Dopamine is all about feeling good in the moment. It doesn’t care about later today, next week, or next year. It’s all about doing whatever feels good now.

Everyday Examples of the Dopamine Hit

Ever found yourself aimlessly scrolling through social media, seeking the instant gratification of new likes and comments? That's the dopamine trail at work. Each notification delivers a small dose of pleasure, creating a cycle that nudges you to check your phone repeatedly.

The same principle applies to impulsive decisions like grabbing fast food instead of cooking a healthier meal. The immediate satisfaction of indulging in something tasty sets off the dopamine reward system, reinforcing the connection between the impulse and the pleasure.

Dopamine's influence on impulsive behavior reveals how our brain's wiring can lead us down paths that prioritize short-term joy over long-term goals. 

I’m not telling you that dopamine is bad or that you shouldn’t seek the dopamine hit. 

You should.

Because life sucks and we all want to feel good. I don’t want you to cut out all sources of happiness. But…you need to rein in the impulsivity that is having a long-term negative impact on your life.

Going to Starbucks for your favorite drink isn’t bad. Doing it three times a day is expensive and likely a gazillion calories. It’s not healthy for your body or your bank account. So get that dopamine hit, but try to do it responsibly.

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The Impulsivity Cycle: Gratification vs. Long-Term Consequences

Impulsivity can be part of a vicious cycle. At its core, this cycle thrives on the battle between immediate rewards and the often distant consequences of our actions. Let's break it down and see how the push of short-term gratification and long-term outcomes perpetuates impulsive behavior.

The Instant Gratification Hook:

Imagine yourself standing in front of a vending machine. You're hungry, and your craving for something sweet is overwhelming. The promise of instant delight dangles before you, urging you to insert those coins and get your reward now.

This is where the impulsivity cycle takes its first step. The immediate pleasure of consuming that sugary treat releases dopamine, creating a blissful moment that your brain doesn't want to forget. It's a natural high, a burst of joy that reinforces the idea that impulsive decisions bring happiness.

The Consequence Delay: 

Now, let's fast-forward to the future—a future where you're reminded of your impulsive snack attack as you step on the scale or realize you've derailed your health goals. Or even a couple of hours later when you’re hungry again because all you gave your body was some empty calories. This is the point where long-term consequences step into the spotlight, highlighting the impact of impulsive choices.

Now, the tension between instant gratification and delayed consequences becomes palpable. The pleasure you experienced from that snack is a distant memory, while the consequences are staring you in the face. The impulsive cycle's trick is that it momentarily blinds you to these future repercussions, focusing your attention solely on the present moment.

The immediate reward you get through your impulsivity means you really can’t see any consequences. Stopping the impulse is a learned skill that takes practice.

Impulsivity isn't a villain to be defeated but rather a puzzle to be understood. Understanding the triggers that lead to impulsive actions empowers us to pause, evaluate, and make choices that align with our long-term goals. It's about recognizing that immediate gratification, while enticing, isn't always the path to lasting happiness.

Remember that mastering impulsivity is a gradual process. Every conscious decision to pause and consider before acting is a step toward regaining control over your choices. By striking a balance between the joy of the present and the wisdom of the future, you can craft a life filled with purpose and mindful decision making.

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