Managing Impulsive Behavior

Do you or a loved one have a pattern of reacting quickly before really thinking things through, only to later experience regret or other unpleasant consequences? Impulsive behavior can include relatively minor annoyances like talking out of turn or jumping the gun to more serious problems like taking dangerous risks or acting out destructively on feelings of anger.  These behaviors are not only painful for the individual, but they can erode relationships and cause others to suffer.

Know the Triggers
There are a number of factors that can increase the likelihood that we will act without thinking.  The following are common red flags for impulsive behavior:

  • Being in a hurry
  • Feeling strong emotions (excitement, frustration, anger, fear)
  • Being pressured by peers or following the crowd

Stop and Think
Most choices we face in our daily lives do not really require the kind of split second action we often feel pressured to take.  If you notice these triggers, ask yourself:

  • What are my options?
  • What are the risks and benefits of each option?
  • How will I feel about this tomorrow?  How about 5 years from now?
  • What would important others in my life say about it?
  • Is it worth the risk?

If you carefully consider the answers to these questions before taking action, you are more likely to make a wise and informed decision.

An Ounce of Prevention
It is much easier for us and for those we love if we can prevent regretted behavior rather than repeatedly having to go back and make amends.  There are a number of strategies that can be helpful for staying out of trouble in the first place:

  • Plan ahead so you don’t feel hurried
  • Distract yourself when you have an urge to respond quickly
  • Notice if you are feeling overly emotional or excited and take a break to calm down
  • Use relaxation techniques to help with frustration and impatience
  • Write down what you want to do and read it aloud to yourself or review with a trusted other
  • Do one thing at a time and break larger tasks/goals down into smaller components
  • Reward yourself for thinking first

Trial and Error
Of course, “to err is human” and it is impossible to avoid every bad decision.  When you make a mistake, don’t beat yourself up.  Instead, acknowledge your error and reflect on it so you can learn from it and avoid repeating it.  It is also helpful to take responsibility and make amends where possible. If impulsivity is a chronic problem that persists despite individual efforts, it may be time to consult a psychologist to get to the root of the problem and make a plan for addressing it under the guidance of a professional.

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