Impulsivity as a Symptom of Mental Illness
For people who feel like they need to be in control, need their routines and their boxed in lives, impulsivity might seem like a fun concept. It can be similar to spontaneity, adventure and experiencing a more exciting life. And it can sure be that way! I am someone who wants to be in control, who should have strong routines, but I am more impulsive than most people. And let me tell you, the negatives really outweigh the positives. While you could potentially have the best times of your life because of impulsive decisions, you could also end up ruining everything that is dear to you.
For me, impulsivity and impulsive behaviour are a symptom of mental illness and not a personality trait. It is not something that I can work on, it is something that I need to learn to live with. It is not a quirky fun thing, it is a behaviour that has gotten me in trouble many times. I know, I am always the bummer. But impulsivity is dangerous, and it is defined as a symptom for many mental illnesses for a reason. Some of those illnesses are bipolar disorder, trauma disorders, ADHD and personality disorders. There are also neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Some examples of dangerous impulsive behaviour could be self-harm, suicide and suicide attempts, sudden life decisions (like ending relationships, starting new relationships, quitting a job, terminating a pregnancy, moving far away etc), taking drugs, speeding, risk-taking behaviour, gambling and violence.
Impulsive behaviour is like listening to a gut feeling, but that gut feeling is wrong. It becomes very difficult to trust yourself if you are prone to impulsive decision making and behaviour. It is just so very hard to engage the logical part of your brain when you are in that moment. All you are is feeling, not logic. And you are going with what feels right. But what feels right is often really wrong in the long-run.
Bipolar Disorder and Impulsivity
I am impulsive because of my bipolar disorder, and sometimes because of triggers related to my trauma. But I am also a very anxious person in need of control, scared to make the wrong decisions or to mess up. So it all is, as always, a very confusing mess in my mind. I am mostly impulsive when I am in hypomania or in mixed episodes. In hypomania, I feel like anything is possible and I just go for it. I don’t go into the dangerous territory of full-blown mania (which would mean ending up in psychosis).
So I don’t feel that I am invincible. But I do feel more confident than I should. I am more risk-taking, I want to have fun and want to ignore all the important things that need to be taken care of. And I make a lot of impulsive life-changing, impulsive decisions. I moved countries twice. The decisions to do that were both times taken when I was in hypomania. I have ended relationships and friendships. I dropped out of university. And I did things that could have really blown up in my face. I was only lucky that none of those things turned out bad for me.
Because, just as impulsivity can mean spontaneity, hypomania can lead to more productivity and creativity. To more confidence and daring to do things that you otherwise wouldn’t do. I travelled through Europe in hypomania, I lived on the streets of London while being in hypomania. I went to concerts, festivals, parties and did really crazy things while being in hypomania. Did I experience more than the average person? Yes! I had lots of fun. But. It could have all turned out wrong too. And hypomania doesn’t last forever. So eventually you crash into the depths of depression. You are a different person. With no energy. You give up. You don’t even have the strength to follow any potential urges.
Another side of bipolar disorder are mixed episodes. It is basically mania and depression mixed together. Your symptoms would fit both of the polar opposites. And now, can you imagine self-harm urges, suicide attempts or a need to ruin your life, mixed together with the impulsiveness of hypomania or mania? There is a reason why mixed episodes are labeled the most dangerous episodes. It is during mixed episodes I had most of my suicide attempts. And it is then that I self-harm. It is then that I fuck unhealthy dangerous people. That I tried drugs and tried to ruin my life. I follow the negative “bad” impulses.
And it is really hard to stop it. All you are is feeling. You feel the pain and the need to do something about it. And when you are in that moment, you see nothing else. So you follow the impulsive urge, unable to engage logic. You don’t sleep, you have all those negative thoughts, and the impulsive strength to follow them. It is dangerous. It is not fun. And it is as far from exciting spontaneity than it could be.
And in depression, I am the least impulsive. I don’t have the energy to do anything, I don’t want to do anything. My decisions might not be sound, but none of them are a spur of the moment thing (unless triggered, that is). I might give up and just hide in bed all day. I might have negative thoughts and even suicidal thoughts, but just don’t have the energy to do anything about them.
Depression makes me tired, exhausted, unwilling to try. It doesn’t make me impulsive. I feel hopeless so there is nothing that would make a difference anyway. That is often why I can handle depression better that any other bipolar episode. I can’t do anything, and I become this unproductive hopeless blob, but at least I don’t try anything stupid. I might mess up my life just as much because I avoid everyone and everything. But the chances of making long-term decisions based on a temporary feelings are lower than in mixed episodes (again, unless I am triggered. When a trigger happens, it doesn’t matter which bipolar episode I am in).
Trauma, Triggers and Impulsivity
And then there are the trauma triggers. When you are triggered (not Karen-triggered, but actually triggered into a flashback which makes you relive the trauma from that past), you have no control over your reactions. And that leads to a lot of weird, and sometimes dangerous, impulsive behaviour. Like, you could just run away and hide. Or fight another person. Or try to hit your head, self-harm or attempt to take your life.
Yet again, it is not something that you can easily control because the feelings are so overwhelming, and you listen to what your gut is telling you to do to make those feelings stop. In times of despair and distress, you are all feelings after all. And you don’t like those feelings, and all your thoughts go towards how to make those emotions disappear. I have been in many situations, where I had absolutely zero control over if I would scream, push someone away from me or try to jump off the balcony. That sort of impulsive behaviour has absolutely nothing to do with a personality trait, but is all connected to mental illness.
Does all that mean that I am an impulsive person though? It doesn’t. Because while there are times that I am overly impulsive, sometimes in more “fun” spontaneous ways and sometimes in self-destructive ways, there are also many times when I am overly anxious and don’t have any incentives to do anything. In anxiety, I don’t dare to do much at all. I am definitely not spontaneous. I need to be in control. And I overthink everything. I am an emotional mess and my first response is to take control (how very submissive of me, haha) so I can feel safe.
But there are also times when that anxiety gets all too much and I do more impulsive things to make it stop (like self-harm), but that happens way more often in mixed episodes than it does when I am otherwise stable (bipolar stability doesn’t mean that my other issues go away. It just means that I am more prone to make reasonable decisions).
Dealing with Impulsivity
My impulsivity is not a quirky personality trait, but a symptom of my mental illness. I struggle with something that many people with bipolar disorder struggle with: self-control. And not only that. I also think that some of the impulsive decisions that I have made in my life, like moving to other countries or just going for things like jobs, concerts, friendships, relationships, have been really good for me. I admit that it could have blown up in my face too though.
And I know that some of my impulsive behaviour is really dangerous and could potentially lead to my death. I know it sounds dramatic, but it is the reality of things for me. I don’t know if I should allow myself to be impulsive sometimes, maybe when in hypomania, or if I should try my best to first engage logic (and with that anxiety) to make decisions. It is difficult to find the right answer there.
I know that the best way to handle the symptom of impulsivity has been to talk about it for me. I do not make a decision unless I ask for feedback. These days it is from my Master, back in the day it was from different people in my life. To get the opinion of someone that I trust is very helpful for me when it comes to making decisions.
I also should implement strong routines that make impulsive behaviour difficult. But I have often failed at that. There is just so much at play for me when it comes to sleep. eating, or doing the basics of survival. I can’t do the same things in depression or during a terrible time for trauma triggers, than I could do during hypomania or stability. I have a hard time adapting to all of that. So while routines are often strongly recommended for people with bipolar disorder and trauma-related illness, I just can’t do it. But I still have the feedback option, and I am making good use of it. Because while I can handle a new haircut, or a new paramour, some areas definitely need more than one perspective to make reasonable decisions.