Impulsivity (IM-pul-SIV-i-tee) is the general term used to describe a tendency to act quickly, often without thinking or caring about the consequences. Impulsivity can be a normal trait. In extreme forms, however, it can be a symptom of certain behavioral disorders.
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Acting on Impulse
To understand impulsivity, it is important to understand the word "impulse," which can be used in two different, although related, ways. With regard to behavior, an impulse is a sudden, strong, even irrational urge, desire, or action resulting from a particular feeling or state of mind. Within the central nervous system, a nerve impulse is the electrical and chemical process by which messages are sent along the nerves. People's impulses, or urges to behave, result from nerve impulses, or the sending of messages from one part of the brain to another. As a normal trait, one person may be more impulsive than another.
Babies and very young children consistently act on impulse because they have not yet developed the ability to understand the results of their actions. Babies and young children will obey the impulse to reach for a pot on the stove, draw on the walls, hit another child, or throw a temper tantrum simply because they have not learned how or why to control their impulses. As children mature, though, they develop the skill of impulse control, sometimes simply called self-control. In other words, they learn to think before they act, wait their turn, and consider the consequences of their actions. Good impulse control makes it possible for a child to wait patiently instead of interrupting, to raise his or her hand in class instead of calling out, and to ask for something instead of grabbing it. This skill usually develops as a result of maturity and is shaped by adult guidance and teaching.
What Is Overly Impulsive Behavior?
For some people, overly impulsive behavior lasts into later childhood, the teenage years, and even adulthood. Too much impulsivity, or not enough impulse control, can lead to behavior problems or unsafe actions. For example, children might impulsively run into a busy street without looking, grab a toy from another child, hit others, throw things, or behave in other inappropriate ways. All children may act this way from time to time, but overly impulsive children repeat these behaviors again and again, even after numerous warnings from parents, teachers, and other adults. Teenagers and adults who lack impulse control may blurt out hurtful comments, not finish projects, have trouble listening, interrupt others frequently, or hit others when they're angry. A pattern of such behavior can be a symptom of a behavior disorder. For instance, a greater than normal level of impulsivity is associated with the condition known as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is characterized by greater than normal levels of impulsivity, hyperactivity, and distractibility.
What Are Impulse-Control Disorders?
There are several other conditions that are classified in the DSM-IV * as impulse-control disorders. Though they are each quite different from one another, they each involve some form of impulsivity or strong urge for a particular type of problematic behavior. They include:
- Intermittent explosive disorder: A pattern of behavior in which a person has trouble resisting aggressive impulses, resulting in sudden and severe outbursts of anger, violence, or destruction of property. The person may respond very aggressively to minor sources of stress or frustration. Because people can act aggressively for many different reasons, however, this condition is only diagnosed when the explosive behavior does not stem from another mental disorder, a medical condition, or a drug or medication.
- Kleptomania (KLEP-toe-MAY-nee-a): An abnormal, uncontrollable, and repeated urge to steal. Often, objects are not taken because of their monetary value or because the person needs them, but because the objects have some kind of symbolic meaning for the person.
- Pyromania (PIE-roe-MAY-nee-a): An uncontrollable urge to set fires. The person usually feels tension while setting the fire, followed by pleasure while watching the fire burn.
- Trichotillomania (TRIK-o-TIL-o-MAY-nee-a): An irresistible urge to pull out one's hair, eyelashes, or eyebrows.
* DSM-IV is The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th revision, published by the American Psychiatric Association. This is the system of classification and diagnosis of mental conditions used in the United States.
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