The Hidden Struggles of Impulsivity in Adults with ADHD

June 19, 2024 - Reading time: 5 minutes
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For many, this scenario is rare and manageable. However, for adults with ADHD, these moments of impulsivity are an all-too-common reality, shaping their daily lives and interactions.

The Impulse Dilemma

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is often characterized by a persistent pattern of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity. Among these, impulsivity can be particularly challenging. It manifests in various ways: from interrupting conversations to making hasty decisions that one might regret later.

Dr. Catharine A. Winstanley and her team highlight this dual-edged nature of impulsivity. While it can sometimes lead to seizing valuable opportunities, more often, it results in regrettable decisions. This dichotomy is something I’ve seen firsthand in my practice, where patients share their struggles and occasional triumphs over impulsive actions.

Real-Life Stories from the Front Lines

Stephen, a member of the Health Unlocked Community Adult ADHD Support, captures this sentiment perfectly: “I’ve been a victim of my own impulsiveness and what a disaster I’ve created.” His experience resonates with many others who face similar challenges daily.

CJ, another community member, reflects on his school days. Known as the class clown, his impulsive ideas often landed him in trouble. “I was that kid in grade school with a creative inattentive mind but impulsive as heck,” he recalls. The consequences were immediate – frequent trips to the principal’s office.

Ella’s story is equally poignant. Her impulsiveness leads her to talk to herself as thoughts rush in. “It’s like my mouth turns into a faucet for my thoughts,” she explains. While it might seem amusing, the lack of control over these impulses is a constant struggle.

The Science Behind Impulsivity

According to psychiatrist Dr. Tim Bilkey, people with ADHD often have delayed maturation in this area, which explains their impulsive tendencies. This neurological perspective provides a foundation for understanding why impulsivity is so prevalent among those with ADHD.

Research also indicates variations in impulsivity levels based on ADHD presentations – whether predominantly hyperactive, inattentive, or combined – and the presence of co-occurring conditions. As noted by Dr. Drew J. Miller and colleagues, these nuances add layers to the already complex landscape of ADHD.

Navigating an Impulsive Life

Despite the challenges, many adults with ADHD learn to manage their impulsivity over time. CJ, for instance, found that studying subjects he loved in college helped him channel his energy more productively. “I often still don’t have enough of a filter, but I’ve been getting better with age,” he says.

Practical strategies can also help. Recognizing situations that trigger impulsive actions and planning for them can be incredibly beneficial. Here are a few tips:

  1. Plan Ahead: Identify scenarios where you’re likely to act impulsively and prepare strategies to manage those moments. For example, bring fidget toys to meetings or carry a notebook to jot down thoughts.
  2. Practice Mindfulness:** Becoming more aware of your surroundings and actions can help you pause and think before acting.
  3. Create Barriers:Make it harder to act on impulses. If you struggle with impulsive buying, leave credit cards at home or set time limits before making a purchase.

Impulse Buying: A Special Case

Impulse buying is a significant issue for many with ADHD, particularly during high-stress periods like holidays. Strategies to curb this behavior include:

  • Creating a Shopping Plan: List what you need and stick to it.
  • Setting Allowances: Allocate specific amounts for different categories and use cash to avoid overspending.
  • Using Technology: Budgeting apps can help track expenses and enforce spending limits.
  • Implementing Waiting Periods: Delay purchases by 24 hours to reconsider their necessity.
  • Focusing on Return Policies: Shop at places with generous return policies and make returning unused items a habit.

Living with ADHD means constantly balancing on the edge of impulsivity. However, understanding the underlying causes and implementing practical strategies can make a significant difference. By sharing stories and tips, we can foster a supportive environment where individuals with ADHD feel empowered to manage their impulses and lead fulfilling lives.

adeelDr. Adeel Sarwar, PhD, is a mental health professional specialising in a broad spectrum of psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, eating disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Armed with years of experience and extensive training in evidence-based therapeutic practices, Dr. Sarwar is deeply committed to delivering empathetic and highly effective treatment.