Impulsivity and Bipolar – Nancy

Several recent studies are looking at the interaction between bipolar and increased impulsiveness.  Impulsivity is often found as a component of bipolar, but researchers remain uncertain whether it is a core trait of the disorder or a separate characteristic.  Impulsiveness has different behavioral factors, including: “1) Non-planning Impulsiveness, which refers to a present orientation or failure to consider the future; 2) Motor Impulsiveness, i.e., acting without thinking; and 3) Attentional Impulsiveness, which is a tendency to shift attention quickly, causing inappropriately rapid decisions.”1

Surfing, Bouncing or Rollercoaster?

What’s your favorite metaphor for mood instability?  We at Moodsurfing have found the “surfing” metaphor to be helpful because it emphasizes that one is not just a helpless victim of the waves, but can learn the skills needed to keep on top of the wave and ride it out.  However, when it comes to impulsiveness, the bouncing balls metaphor may look more real – they just come and go as they want to, it sometimes seems.  Our colleagues at the BPHope site have also worked with the rollercoaster metaphor – life’s ups and downs going around and around.  Check out our Facebook page, where you can share your own metaphor.

What to do about it?

Bipolar is a chronic condition, you have to learn to manage it lifelong, which includes strategies for mood stability directly, and also general lifestyle changes to stay healthy and balanced.  Mindfulness is always important, and mindful habits, such as training yourself never to act on a decision without a 24-hour “cooling off” period, can be lifesavers.

Medication is an important component of mood stability management for many people, and here again, healthy habits are critical.  You should never suddenly increase or decrease your dosage without discussing it with your health care provider, and you need to develop ways of monitoring your body’s reactions to the medications in real time.

Yoga, meditation, and other self-awareness programs can also be a great help.  These methods commonly teach self-reflection (see yourself as others see you) and self-direction, a component of impulse control and decision-making.  Practices of this nature, if followed with discipline, can help keep you centered and balanced no matter what life throws at you.

Support from family and friends is always important.  It is helpful if you give them some tips for how to help, because people don’t naturally know what is helpful or unhelpful to a person in the throes of mania or depression.  Let them know what specific actions are helpful to you, and remind them that just being there for you is the most important thing.

As always, we recommend monitoring your moods and what helps or hinders your recovery.  A mood chart or mood journal gives you lots of information that you may not retain in your memory as time goes by.


  1. Barratt ES. Impulsivity: Integrating cognitive, behavioral, biological, and environmental data. In: McCown WG, Johnson JL, Shure MB, editors. The Impulsive Client: Theory, Research and Treatment. Washington, D.C: American Psychological Association; 1993.

For more information:

Impulsivity and Risk Taking in Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia

Impulsivity across the course of bipolar disorder

Impulsivity: What’s Happening In The Brain