If You're Feeling Impulsive Right Now, You're Not Alone

When the future is uncertain, people have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic by acting more recklessly in the present—even if they're not leaving their homes to do it.
A transmasculine person standing by the water and smoking a Juul close up
Photo by Zackary Drucker for The Gender Spectrum Collection

Over the last two months, since the coronavirus pandemic thrust the world into a collective panic, Minneapolis freelance journalist Ashley Abramson has stocked up on throw blankets, decorative baskets, candles, makeup, and skincare items. Abramson, 31, said none of the decisions about buying so many small extravagances were particularly thought out or planned through. “I’ve always been more impulsive with purchases,” she said. “The pandemic has definitely amplified that tendency in me—the greater perception that I’m going through something hard causes me to mentally justify spending on things.”


Since the coronavirus became a tangible threat to North America in early March, resulting in mass concerns about public health, unprecedented unemployment, and social isolation, many have done their best to cope with the ripple effects of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Some are taking up running and bread baking, others are finding solace in the virtual worlds of Animal Crossing and Zoom happy hours. Others, like Abramson, are staving off boredom and anxiety with impulsive decisions, like drinking more, doing stick-and-poke tattoos, trimming their bangs, and shaving their heads.

The impact of a global crisis can inspire impulsivity in anyone (and, in some cases, result in more widely destructive behaviors, like embarking on a poorly-conceived road trip or going through with in-person social plans despite stay-at-home guidances). The effects of social isolation and loneliness are playing a role in impulsivity, too: A 2019 study found that people who feel lonely are more likely to feed into impulsive desires, like overspending.

The sudden disruption of our ordinary routines breeds frustration and boredom, which can lead to more impulsive choices, said Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. According to Levounis, when you add pandemic-induced fear to the cocktail of frustration and boredom, we’re prone to react emotionally rather than logically. “You may take it out on yourself in the case of shaving your head, or you can take it out on other people by exploding in personal relationships,” he said.


The latter occurred in the heat of a text argument between 28-year-old publicist Katy Cooper and her boyfriend of nearly nine months. Fed up with what she saw as his lack of effort in maintaining communication while the couple quarantined separately in their Brooklyn apartments, Cooper decided to rip off the Band-Aid and dump him rather than agonize over the relationship until she was able to see him face-to-face.

Cooper's roommate had left New York for California at the outbreak of the pandemic, leaving Cooper to quarantine alone, and she felt social isolation impacted her knee-jerk reaction. “Normally, I would spitball with my roommates [about breaking up] or go out with friends,” she said. “I have a strong support system, but I know everyone is going through stuff right now. A phone call or FaceTime isn't the same as sitting on a couch with a bunch of your girlfriends to get everything out and get feedback. Now, I make decisions by myself.”

At the root of impulsivity is an inability to consider the consequences of our actions: Someone might justify their impulsivity by thinking along a line like, I’d rather spend my money and live for the moment than worry about my finances in the future. With no clear plan in sight for restoring the economy and returning to a semblance of normalcy, we may opt for instant gratification, said Shahram Heshmat, associate professor emeritus at the University of Illinois at Springfield, who specializes in the health economics of addiction. “[Combating impulsivity is] all about imagining the future, and some people don't imagine, especially when it’s uncertain,” he said.

Because virtually every aspect of how the crisis is managed on a broad scale is out of our control, we’re grasping at ways we can maintain agency over our lives in the immediate present. Perceived control over our circumstances is biologically hardwired within us as a survival tactic, according to research. However, when we're under duress, we tend to make riskier decisions without considering the consequences, per a 2017 study.

“I don't want to sound like the protesters who are out in the streets— give us our freedom back!!— but it's an expression of that same feeling,” said Erin Rockfort, a 24-year-old psychotherapist from Ottawa who impulsively shaved her head earlier this month. “We can't do so many of the things we used to be able to do, so any opportunity to use that freedom to actually make a choice is kind of appealing.”

But so long as our impulsive decisions aren’t harming ourselves or others, feeding into our whims could help get us through the monotony of quarantine more joyfully. However, if you’re sensing a degree of lawlessness inspiring your impulsivity — such as impulse-purchasing a gun or preying on people’s insecurities with a get-rich-quick stimulus scam — it may be cause to take a step back and really think about what’s fueling the desire. However, submitting to a bang-trim or hasty throw-rug purchase might not be the worst thing, Levounis said. “It might be a good thing that we're not taking ourselves so seriously,” Levounis said. “There might be a silver lining, for some people at least, that there are no barber shops and there are no salons.” Basically: If a patchy buzzcut or a new tattoo helps us cope with our present anxieties, then seize the day (or scissors, or sanitized needle) and embrace a moment when you can stand to be a little—but just a little!—reckless.

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