Impulses are part of normal human behavior—they serve an adaptive function, such as being able to respond quickly in the face of danger, but too much impulsivity begins to be maladaptive—and related to a host of behavioral and emotional problems. In this article, we’ll dig deeper into this topic and offer strategies for helping you manage impulsivity.

In its simplest form, an impulse is a driving or motivating force to take action that is sudden and without reflection. It is without connotation. Impulsivity, on the other hand, is usually seen as problematic. The common elements are 1:

·       Reacting immediately before thoroughly processing information

·       Being unable to delay gratification

·       Not considering the consequences of one’s behavior

High impulsivity in adults is associated with difficulty in relationship, both social and romantic, and with over-indulgence and addiction, including food, substances, and gambling1,2.

The brain and impulsivity

Advances in neuroimaging have allowed the discovery of areas in the brain related to impulse control and executive function (processes responsible for planning, organizing, and completing tasks which are highly dependent on self-regulation). These are primarily in the frontal lobe of the brain, particularly for reward systems, attention, and decision-making. 

Adults who score high on measures of impulsivity have been found to have a thinner cortex, which is the outer layer of gray matter in the brain, in those areas that drive decision-making and self-control3. In essence, these individuals have less of the matter in the brain that houses the majority of the neurons (brain cells) and is responsible for goal-directed action and the inhibition of impulsive decisions.

Further, the impulsive system in the brain and the executive function system (responsible for mental control and self-regulation) of the brain may be out of balance. This can mean there is hyperactivity (more) of the impulsive system and hypoactivity (less) of the executive system, and the former wins out4.

Brains and behavior can be trained

The good news is that there are a number of strategies that have been found to be effective for helping adults manage impulsivity5,6.  Let’s take a look at two key areas:


As adults with a stronger bent toward impulsivity have brains that are more active in these areas, learning mindfulness techniques is very beneficial. Mindfulness is being deeply aware of the present moment. It allows you to be reflective of how you are feeling and then to think through how the scenario you are considering engaging in might play out.

Questions to ask yourself could be: How important is it that I act on this impulse? How will I feel tomorrow if I do? And if I don’t? How will I feel in the long run if I do? And if I don’t?

One reason mindfulness can work well for someone who has an active mind, as individuals who are impulsive are more likely to have, is that unlike meditation, the goal of mindfulness is not to have a blank mind. Rather it is to focus your attention on your thoughts and emotions as these are often very tied to impulsiveness.

Check out the resources at the end of the article for suggestions related to practicing mindfulness.

Delaying and Distracting

A second strategy is to delay and/or distract. If you feel the urge to go on a shopping spree, see if you can delay for a short amount of time, say half an hour. Each time following, increase the amount of time by small increments. What you are doing is training and strengthening your ‘delay of gratification’ for something that is immediately pleasurable for something more rewarding later. In the case of shopping, one reward is healthier finances.

You can also distract yourself from the impulse by doing something else that is not going to have negative consequences. For example, if you feel the impulse to eat because you are not hungry but anxious, try replacing eating with taking a walk, playing with a pet, calling a friend, writing in your journal, watching funny videos, engaging in a hobby, or anything along these lines.

Remember that not putting yourself in the situations that trigger your particular impulses will make the ability to delay and distract much more successful. If you are impulsive about buying lottery tickets, make it a point to only shop where these are not sold.

When you do resist the urge to act impulsively, allow yourself to feel really good about this. If you slip, don’t be too hard on yourself, but put that energy into changing your environment to better support yourself in managing impulsiveness.

Closing Thoughts

Impulsivity is heavily controlled by the brain, but managing impulsivity is controlled by strategies put in place within the environment. Being less impulsive is very feasible for adults, and while it does take work and persistence, the rewards of being happier and healthier, either physically or mentally, or both, will be there for you!

Recommended Resources




1. Bakhshani, N. M. (2014). Impulsivity: A predisposition toward risky behaviorsInternational Journal of High Risk Behaviors & Addiction3(2), e20428.

2. Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Executive functions and self-regulationTrends in Cognitive Sciences16(3), 174-180.

3. Holmes, A. J., Hollinshead, M. O., Roffman, J. L., Smoller, J. W., & Buckner, R. L. (2016). Individual differences in cognitive control circuit anatomy link sensation seeking, impulsivity, and substance useJournal of Neuroscience36(14), 4038-4049.

4. Foxall, G. R. (2016). Metacognitive control of categorical neurobehavioral decision systemsFrontiers in Psychology7, 170.

5. Stratton, K. J. (2006). Mindfulness-based approaches to impulsive behaviorsThe New School Psychology Bulletin4(2), 49-71.

6. Reynolds, B., & Schiffbauer, R. (2005). Delay of gratification and delay discounting: A unifying feedback model of delay-related impulsive behaviorThe Psychological Record55(3), 439-460.


About the Author

Lilla Dale McManis, MEd, PhD, is an educational psychologist who specializes in learning and cognition. She uses her training and experience to promote optimal outcomes through translating research into meaningful practice.