Discover the difference between impulsive and compulsive behaviors plus tips to learn how to manage them.
Compulsivity and impulsivity may seem similar, but they’re very different brain mechanisms associated with some mental health conditions.
Compulsive and impulsive behaviors can be managed to reduce unwanted consequences and improve your well-being. But first, it’s essential to understand the key differences between the two.
According to Bethany Cook, PsyD, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, compulsive behaviors are conscious or unconscious actions.
Compulsive behaviors are usually performed repeatedly to reduce emotional or somatic physical discomfort — or in other words, relieve an urge or distress.
Impulsive behaviors are spontaneous actions that aren’t completely thought out, particularly regarding the potential consequences.
“Everyone is prone to acting impulsively given the right cocktail of circumstances, whereas not everyone performs repetitive behaviors or thoughts in an effort to feel better,” Cook says.
There are many possible causes of impulsive and compulsive behaviors.
While many people have a natural tendency to behave in impulsive and compulsive ways, these behaviors may also be symptoms of a mental health condition.
According to Cook, the following mental health conditions are associated with compulsivity:
- obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
- hoarding disorder
- trichotillomania (or hair pulling disorder)
- dermatillomania (excoriation or skin picking disorder)
- substance or medication-induced obsessive-compulsive and related disorder
- obsessive-compulsive and related disorder due to another medical condition
- other specified and unspecified obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
Cook adds many mental health disorders may cause impulsivity, such as:
- Tourette syndrome
- oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
- tic disorders
- intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
- conduct disorder
- other specified and unspecified disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorders
Other mental health conditions that could lead to impulsivity or compulsivity may include:
- anxiety disorders
- bipolar disorder
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
- impulse control disorder
- eating disorders (like binge eating disorder)
According to Cook, examples of compulsive thoughts and behaviors might include:
- constant handwashing
- opening and closing doors
- repeating phrases aloud or in one’s mind
- counting and recounting things (i.e., money, outlets, exits)
- replaying a comment you made during a conversation after it has ended
- turning off and on light switches
- compulsive praying
- twirling your hair often
- cracking your knuckles
A 2020 study suggests that gambling may also be linked to compulsivity. The findings of this particular study suggest a stronger association among young African American recreational gamblers.
According to Cook, impulsive behavior symptoms may include:
- interrupting someone mid-conversation
- leaving the house without all necessary items (i.e., phone, wallet, keys)
- hugging or touching people without their consent
- blurting out answers in school
- excessive snacking outside meals
- online purchases for unnecessary items
In addition, a 2018 study indicates that impulsivity may play a significant role in people who have hypersexual tendencies.
Managing your compulsive or impulsive tendencies is possible. Here are a few ways to cope with your symptoms.
“Therapy can definitely help with both compulsive and impulsive behaviors by assisting an individual in not only understanding the causation (which is very therapeutic) but also [offering] alternative personalized coping strategies for managing both thoughts and behaviors,” Cook says.
Taking the right medication may also help you manage or treat impulsive or compulsive behaviors. Medications for these behaviors tend to be the same as those used to treat OCD.
“Medication has been shown to be highly effective in decreasing impulsive behaviors in individuals who [live with] a neurologic disorder like ADHD,” Cook says. “Some medications have also been helpful in treating compulsive thoughts and behaviors.”
But Cook’s opinion is that compulsive behaviors are more difficult to medicate than impulsive ones.
“This is due to the fact that compulsions are often premeditated and thought about in advance, and the individual has a history of getting immediate relief from the acts, and learning new coping skills takes time,” she says.
Leaning on a support system may help you cope and manage your tendencies.
Cook recommends asking a trusted friend or family member if they’re willing to be your support while you learn and practice new coping strategies.
“We’re more likely to follow through when we’re held accountable,” she says. “Finding someone who can do this while being kind and supportive is even better.”
Compulsive and impulsive behaviors are common symptoms of many mental health conditions.
The main difference between the two behaviors is that compulsivity is more pre-planned, whereas impulsivity is more spontaneous.
If you’re interested in learning more about compulsivity and impulsivity or how to manage your tendencies, you may wish to consider speaking with a therapist.