Compulsive vs. Impulsive: Understanding the Difference

compulsive vs impulsive

Compulsive vs. Impulsive: Understanding the Difference

Thankfully, mental health is becoming less of a taboo topic, opening up the ability for people to relate with one another and share ideas about how to cope. However, this new openness about mental health is causing people to become confused about what specific terms actually mean. While the terms compulsive and impulsive may sound similar, they are completely different types of behavior. 

Both impulsive and compulsive behaviors are associated with various types of mental health conditions. Additionally, these behaviors can cause significant impairments to your daily life. Understanding the differences between compulsivity and impulsivity can help you determine what type of mental health treatment you need.

What are Impulsive Behaviors?

Put simply, impulsive behaviors are actions that you take without thinking them through. Researchers have found that “from a behavioral perspective, impulsivity includes a wide variety of actions that, are immature, dangerous, inappropriate to the situation and done without consideration, which usually bring about negative consequences.”[1]

While everyone might engage in impulsive behavior at some point in their lives, some people might be predisposed to experiencing impulsivity more often and at a more damaging level. 

Examples of impulsive behaviors include:

  • Interrupting someone while they are speaking
  • Leaving the house without necessary items (i.e. phone, wallet, keys)
  • Blurting out answers in class
  • Purchasing unnecessary items online when you cannot afford it
  • Engaging in risky behaviors like substance abuse or unsafe sex without considering the consequences 

People without mental health conditions might act impulsively by interrupting someone when they speak or hugging someone without asking for their consent. However, when impulsive behaviors indicate a mental illness they are typically severe, such as spending all of your money or engaging in substance abuse.

What Causes Impulsivity?

Impulsive behavior can be caused by a wide range of mental health conditions. Because of this, you should always consult with a mental health professional if you struggle with impulsive thoughts or behaviors.

Impulsivity could be caused by the following mental disorders:[2]

If you experience impulsive thoughts or behaviors that do not significantly impair your ability to function in your daily life, you might not be struggling with a mental health condition. However, if your impulsivity begins to impact your work, school, or home life, you should seek help from a mental health professional. 

What are Compulsive Behaviors?

Compulsive behaviors are typically actions you perform repeatedly to reduce distress. More often than not, people engage in compulsive behaviors without being aware of it. If you are aware of your compulsive behaviors, you usually are not able to control them without professional help. 

According to medical professionals, “compulsive behavior consists of repetitive acts that are characterized by the feeling that one ‘has to’ perform them while one is aware that these acts are not in line with one’s overall goal.”[3]

Examples of compulsive behaviors include:

  • Repetitive hand washing 
  • Opening and closing doors to ensure they are locked or secured properly
  • Repeating phrases aloud or in your head
  • Recounting things (i.e. money, tiles on the floor, exits)
  • Turning light switches on and off
  • Repeatedly checking to make sure the stove is off or a candle is out 

It is important to remember that compulsive behaviors are completed to soothe anxious feelings or fear. Sometimes, people engage in these behaviors because they believe something bad will happen if they do not.

What Causes Compulsivity? 

Typically, compulsive behaviors are linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). This condition can take many forms, with some people experiencing obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors related to cleanliness and others being more preoccupied with safety. It is important to note that people suffering from this condition experience unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and engage in compulsive behaviors to soothe those thoughts and the feelings surrounding them.[4]

Other conditions that may lead to compulsive behaviors include:

  • Body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)
  • Hoarding disorder 
  • Trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder)
  • Dermatillomania (skin-picking disorder)
  • Substance use disorder (SUD)

Compulsive behaviors are typically not experienced without an underlying mental health condition, as they are accompanied by obsessive thoughts and extreme distress. Some conditions might cause mild compulsivity, while others are severe and require extensive treatment. Because of this, you should always consult with a mental health professional if you experience compulsive behaviors.

Can Someone Experience Both Compulsive and Impulsive Behaviors?

It is possible to experience both impulsivity and compulsivity at the same time. Certain mental health conditions like anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and even addiction can lead to both of these types of behaviors. 

However, someone who experiences compulsive and impulsive behaviors could be struggling with co-occurring disorders. This means that they struggle with more than one mental health condition at the same time. As a result, you should always seek evaluation and treatment from a mental health professional rather than attempting to diagnose and treat yourself. 

Finding Help for Compulsive or Impulsive Behaviors

If you or a loved one experience compulsive, impulsive, or a mixture of both types of behavior, Florida Recovery Group is here to help. 

We can provide you with an in-depth mental health evaluation to determine the root cause of your systems. After we have all of the information we need, we will create an individualized treatment plan to ensure that you receive the specific type of treatment and support you need to recover. 

To learn more about our mental health treatment programs, contact Florida Recovery Group today.


  1. National Library of Medicine: Impulsivity: A Predisposition Toward Risky Behaviors, Retrieved May 2023 From
  2. National Library of Medicine: [Impulsivity and mental disorders], Retrieved May 2023 From
  3. National Library of Medicine: Defining Compulsive Behavior, Retrieved May 2023 From
  4. National Library of Medicine: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Retrieved May 2023 From