How to Manage Adult ADHD and Impulsivity
Impulsivity is one of the underlying features of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that disrupts someone’s life. The stereotype associated with ADHD and impulsivity is that of an adult who acts a lot like a hummingbird, flitting from one flower to the next without being able to stop. While this isn’t entirely inaccurate, there’s more to it than that. Understanding more about adult ADHD and impulsivity will help you manage it.
Expand Your Thinking About Adult ADHD and Impulsivity
There’s a misconception that people with ADHD are impulsive because they don’t know any better or don’t understand the consequences of their actions. Lack of understanding isn’t the issue. ADHD is not an intellectual problem, and despite some symptom overlap between ADHD and mild cognitive impairment, ADHD is not a cognitive disorder (Pollack, 2012).
Treating adults who have ADHD as if they were somehow less intelligent not only doesn’t help, but it can do harm. It can lead to low self-esteem and low self-efficacy as well as create problems in relationships, make it hard to stay productive and focused at work, and more. Knowing what impulsivity is not (it’s not stupidity or an inability to understand actions and consequences) is important. Equally important is knowing what impulsivity actually is.
The impulsive behavior of adults with ADHD is related to a lack of “behavioral inhibition mechanisms” (Selikowitz, 2009). Impulsivity is like having a minor little itch that, once noticed, absolutely must be scratched. It becomes the new, albeit temporary, focus.
Adult ADHD and impulsivity is less of an attention problem than it is a problem with maintaining consistent engagement (Surman & Bilkey, 2013). To someone living with ADHD, everything is an itch that must be scratched immediately. Impulsivity isn’t a lack of understanding; instead, it’s a lack of inhibition and engagement. The distinction means that impulsivity can be managed.
Adult ADHD and Impulsivity Control
Impulsivity is all-encompassing. Adults with ADHD can be impulsive in their thoughts, emotions, and actions. Impulsivity is also intense. “People [with ADHD] feel feelings more intensely, feel impulses more deeply, and are always on the verge of action” (Hallowell & Ratey, 2010, p. 264).
With heightened emotions, rapid and wandering thoughts, and an itch to move, concentration and focus can be extremely difficult. Adult ADHD and impulsivity control problems can include, but are not limited to, behaviors such as
- Taking actions or making decisions without thinking
- Engaging in risky behaviors (such as impulsive spending)
- Demanding instant gratification
- Loudness (in voice, in actions)
- General boisterousness and even destructiveness
- Failing to complete work and projects before jumping to something new
Strategies for Managing Adult ADHD Impulsivity
Adults with ADHD typically have a need for a fast pace in whatever it is they’re doing. Managing impulsivity control by attempting to slow things down will likely backfire. Instead, it’s important to work with your ADHD brain rather than against it. Here are some strategies for managing your adult ADHD impulsivity:
- Rather than berating yourself for being impulsive, ask yourself what specific problems you’re having because of impulsivity.
- Jot down those problems so you can return to them.
- Think about what you want instead of the problems caused by impulsivity. In other words, borrow from solution-focused therapy and ask yourself, “What will my life be like when impulsivity isn’t such a problem?”
- Setting a series of short-term goals that are easy to attain is helpful in managing impulsivity because you can experience success without getting bogged down, and you can move on to other goals.
- Also, establish longer-term goals for the bigger picture. Too many small goals can quickly begin to feel pointless and boring, thus creating more impulsivity. Being able to work toward an attainable goal helps keep your progress steady (having ADHD and successful relationships could be a bigger picture goal).
- Establish routines and structure. Knowing how you want and need your day to go as well as the necessary sequence of tasks can help you avoid the urge to scratch a random itch.
- Make meaningful, attainable plans and use lists to keep yourself on track. Write your lists in a way that’s meaningful and attention-grabbling for you.
- Multitask. It might seem counterintuitive at first. If you’re supposed to be concentrating on one thing at a time, wouldn’t multitasking make you more impulsive? Actually, research shows that multitasking can be good for adults with ADHD. It’s a strength-in-numbers concept. If you are focusing on a task and thus holding back an impulse to do something else, you’re activating the inhibitory network in your brain. Multitasking, because you’re focusing on multiple tasks, can strengthen this network and help you develop impulse control (Bank, 2015).
Using these ADHD impulsivity strategies is an effective way to enhance impulsivity control. ADHD and impulsivity in adults can be frustrating and interfere with life; however, you can take charge of your impulsive thoughts, emotions, and actions and prevent impulsivity from ruining your life.
Peterson, T. (2021, December 20). How to Manage Adult ADHD and Impulsivity, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, February 5 from https://www.healthyplace.com/self-help/adhd/how-to-manage-adult-adhd-and-impulsivity