Impulsivity & Anger: Don’t Believe Everything You Think


Cognitive/Emotional Impulsivity

Managing the gap between impulse and reaction,
on the way
to putting a lid on “Response Hyperactivity”

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
Part of The Challenges Inventory™ Series

Driving Lessons

One of nine areas of concern measured by The Challenges Inventory™, the Impulsivity category measures impulse control, in many ways the indication of our ability to contain (or at least tolerate) the frustration of waiting.

In other words, the condition of our emotional brakes.

  • Individuals who are relatively balanced where impulsivity is concerned manage risk and drive behavior by weighing possible rewards against possible losses — which implies a brief moment of reflection between impulse and action.
  • Some individuals who say they prefer staying with what’s comfortably familiar, avoiding risks and risky behavior are ABLE to make that choice because they have what I like to call a relatively “low idle.”

In other words, activation takes more energy than the norm, so they often spend more time in the gap between impulse and action than the rest of us — the opposite end of the impulse control dynamic.

While I’m sure they’re grateful for small favors, avoiding a ready-fire-aim-oops situation, their lack of decisiveness costs them dearly in some arenas. Same tune, different verse.

  • At the other end of the impulsivity scale are individuals frequently described as “risk takers,” supposedly because they are strongly attracted to and excited by what’s new and different, lured into action by the call of the wild. These are the folks who are normally labeled IMPULSIVE!

I have observed that individuals who are repeatedly reckless have emotional brakes that have never been connected or, in the presence of the excitement of the moment, brakes that fail.

Good news/bad news

Impulsivity, while certainly a nuisance at times, is an important personality characteristic.

Giving in to impulse without pause for reflection can result in some fairly unfortunate outcomes, of course, but it would be just as unfortunate if that trait had been bred out of our species entirely.

We’d probably all be dead!

The trait of impulsivity is believed to have evolved as part of our fight or fight mechanism that kicks in automatically when our lives are in danger.

The survival of our genetic ancestors depended upon their biological ability to respond effectively to circumstances where strength and action needed to be marshaled immediately.

Since our cave ancestors who did not stop to reflect during life-threatening situations were the only ones left alive to pass their genes on to us, it would seem as if impulsivity is “hard-wired” into the human brain.

In appropriate doses and situations, it is actually a good thing. Not only does it help save our bacon when we find in ourselves dangerous situations, it’s what gives life those moments of spontaneity that make it fun to be alive.

Still, depending on its intensity, a tendency toward action with little to no thought or planning can get us in a heap of trouble. That’s usually when others refer to our behavior as impulsive – and it’s usually when life is suddenly not so much fun (for us or anyone around us!)

Impulsivity in the Emotional Arena

Most of us who have an impulsivity component to whatever else is going on with us have a pretty good idea of where our problems with impulsivity are likely to show up.  If not, we can always ask our loved ones – believe me, they know!

But the most troubling manifestations are internal – what we think about what’s going on around us.

A balanced degree of impulse control implies that we are ABLE to take a moment to control observable behavior, of course – and that we DO that – but there’s more to the story.

It also implies that we are able to monitor and moderate our thoughts and emotions with a moment of reflection between impulse and reaction.

That’s where things get tricky.

When our thoughts jump from item to item (often referred to as cognitive hyperactivity – a mind in overdrive or a “busy brain”), many of those thoughts quickly lead to emotional reactions.

As clinical psychologist Ari Tuckman, PsyD, and author of More Attention, Less Deficit: Successful Strategies for Adults with ADHD reminds everybody, some individuals  “tend to feel and express their emotions more strongly.”

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