Impulsive and Compulsive Behaviour

Impulsive Behaviour vs Compulsive Behaviour

Impulsivity and compulsivity are natural behaviours that are essential for human survival. Being impulsive is acting on instinct. Being compulsive is acting upon an irresistible urge. While similar sounding, these two behaviours differ in intent. Impulsive behaviour is action without thought, compulsive behaviour is premeditated.

For some, impulsive or compulsive behaviour becomes an addiction, leading to serious mental health disorders that take control of their lives. Learning to recognize these behaviours, their causes, and the disorders associated, can better educate us about the mental health challenges facing our community, and help end the stigma surrounding mental health disorders.


Impulsive behaviour is acting prematurely without forethought about the potential consequences of those actions. Impulsive behaviour is usually driven by the desire for positive or pleasurable results, such as relief from emotional pain or the need for feeling of happiness. However, in the long-term this behaviour can result in several negative consequences including greater emotional distress, regret, deliberate self-harm, and even criminal activity.

While impulse control disorders are relatively common psychiatric conditions, experts have yet to isolate a specific cause. It’s thought that a combination of biological, environmental, psychological, and even cultural or societal factors may play a contributing role. Current research into the origins of impulse control disorders indicates that genetics, neurological imbalances, and the environment in which an individual lives or was raised are a factor.

Impulse control disorders also commonly coincide with other mental health issues like depression, PTSD and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Impulse Control Disorders include:

• substance abuse;
• pathological gambling;
• sexual addiction;
• binge eating;
• compulsive shopping;
• intermittent explosive disorder;
• kleptomania;
• pyromania;
• trichotillomania.


In contrast to impulsivity, compulsive behaviour is a conscious act driven by a desperate need to alleviate anxiety and stress. Often small, restricted and repetitive, compulsive behaviours act as a safety valve, offering distraction, and providing a sense of control where none seems to exist. Completing the compulsive behaviour may bring relief but the action is often unpleasant, offers little reward, and can create new feelings of frustration and shame.

At it simplest, compulsive behavior is a response to the thought “If I don’t do this action, something terrible will happen.”

The most common compulsive disorders are hoarding – the excessive accumulation, and the inability to discard, possessions regardless of their value; and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – a pattern of uncontrollable, unreasonable thoughts and fears that lead to repetitive behaviours.

Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder include:

• excessive cleaning, bathing, and handwashing;
• repeatedly checking things – cell phones, locks, the oven;
• obsessive orderliness – arranging things in a particular or precise way;
• compulsive counting;
• ritualistic tapping, touching, or rubbing;
• demanding encouragement or reassurances;
• following a strict routine.

Some impulse control disorders can also be classified as compulsive behaviour, as the action becomes deliberate and the response sought becomes a need without reward.

In today’s modern society, the promotion of stress, fear, and anxiety has become a part of daily life, as has our constant need for happiness and validation. Satisfying these innate human emotions is what has led to the increase in impulse control disorders, compulsive behaviour disorders, and addiction in our community.

If you or a loved one is struggling with impulsive or compulsive behaviour or addictions, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Enlist professional help, speak to a mental health professional, or call The Farm in Stouffville at 1-877-353-2777.

The Farm is a private residential rehab facility offering personalized mental health and addiction treatment and counseling.

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