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January 29, 2019

The Difference Between Being Impatient and Impulsive- By Dr Guy Winch

Feeling restless is very different from unplanned risky behaviour.

Danny, a 43-year-old store manager, was stopped by the police for doing an illegal U-turn across a busy highway. As he explained, “Our lanes weren’t moving at all and it was going to take forever to get to the next intersection. Then this truck cut in front of me and I got pissed, so I figured I’d just cut across and go back a couple of miles so I could take a different route.” He shrugged and said, “I’m impatient.”

Danny’s wife had a different take on what happened: “I almost had a heart attack when he turned into the incoming lanes—there were cars heading right at us. One of them had to brake to avoid hitting us.” At which point Danny assured me he had plenty of time to do the turn and if the police motorcycle hadn’t happened to come by at that moment, it would have been no big deal.

But was Danny’s illegal U-turn merely a sign of impatience or was it a sign of impulsiveness? And if so, what exactly is the difference between the two? 

1. Impatience is defined as the feeling of being annoyed because you have to wait, or feeling restless because you want something to happen as soon as possible. According to a recent review in American Psychologist, impulsiveness (or impulsivity) is typically defined as acting in a rapid and unplanned way without considering the consequences. In other words…

2. Impatience refers to specific feelings (such as restlessness) or to an action that implies such feelings such as tapping ones feet, while impulsivity refers to actual actions and behaviours. This distinction between feeling and action is also why circumstance matters, as…

3. Given the right circumstance, anyone might have moments of feeling impatient (like being stuck in traffic) but impulsive actions (like doing an illegal U-turn on a busy highway) are not considered normative psychological responses. Indeed, psychologically speaking…

4. Impulsivity is considered a problematic psychological behaviour and one associated with conditions such as ADHD (emphasis on the H—hyperactivity), depression and anxiety, antisocial and borderline personality disorders, and manic episodes. The reason psychologists consider impulsivity to be pathological is because…

5. Impulsivity is significantly related to conditions such as substance abuse and personality disorders, and the actions associated with impulsive behaviour are often not just unplanned but risky or dangerous. Indeed…

6. Impulsivity is characterized by a failure to inhibit a risky thought or behaviour. We all get bad ideas, but most of us can think them through, recognize they are risky or dangerous, and then stop ourselves from doing them. The fact that impulsive people cannot is why…

7. Impulsivity is considered a problem with executive functioning—the suite of abilities that include decision making and impulse control. We sometimes see changes in executive functioning and in impulsivity when…

8. People who suffered closed head injuries or traumatic brain injuries can manifest impairments in executive functioning. Someone who had always been measured, disciplined, and risk averse can begin to exhibit impulsive behaviours. But it isn’t just a brain injury that can cause a rise in impulsivity…

9. Chronic or acute drug abuse has also been associated with changes in impulsivity. This is especially true of people who abuse multiple drugs, as opposed to those who abuse only one. There are treatments available for impulsivity…

10. Several approaches are used for treating impulsivity depending on the severity of the tendency. Mindfulness mediation has been used to slow down emotional reactivity, and certain medications have also been found to reduce impulsivity.

By Dr Guy Winch

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