Impulses are a natural part of life. What separates humans from other species is in our ability to control our urges. Impulse control is how we demonstrate psychological maturity and excel in society. The simple concept of “think before you act” isn’t quite so easy for everyone, however.
What Are Impulse Control Disorders
A person is afflicted by an impulse control disorder (ICD) when he or she absolutely can’t resist the urge to do something. This goes well beyond the incessant and occasional need to give in to temptation and order an extra-large fries at your favorite fast food establishment.
The actions displayed in a person with an impulse control disorder are usually harmful and can be targeted toward themselves or other people. Impulsive behavior disorders are a broad category and were once known to span from drug addictions to paraphilic sexual fantasies. However, updates to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) reallocated some of what were once considered ICDs, such as compulsive gambling and sexual addiction, into another classification. It is common to see other addictive behaviors in a person with an ICD as the inability to maintain control over one’s impulses is a common characteristic.
Common Impulsive Behavior Disorders Include:
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder: Can be present in children who have ongoing defiant and hostile behaviors toward authority figures, even after negative consequences are experienced. Often present with ADHD or ADD.
- Conduct Disorder: Seen in children and adolescents who exhibit aggressive, deceitful, destructive behaviors, with no regard for breaking rules and little to no guilt or remorse after the fact.
- Antisocial Personality: A disregard for others, uses people as the means to their own end. Often begins with Conduct Disorder in childhood.
- Intermittent Explosive Disorder: Uncontrolled and violent episodes.
- Pyromania: This disorder centers on an obsession with fire.
- Kleptomania: A kleptomaniac will commit compulsive theft.
- Compulsive Shopping: An individual will often buy things he or she doesn’t need.
Despite their vast differences, impulsive control disorders tend to work in similar ways. In the beginning, the person will feel a building tension. Then there’s an increase in suspense before the act is committed.
The individual will almost always experience excitement while doing the impulsive act, whatever it may be. Afterward, however, he or she is far more likely to experience regret and guilt. Those who suffer from impulsive behavior disorders will usually feel like they have no control.
Impulse Control Disorders vs. Other Illnesses
Some studies show similarities between impulsive behavior disorders and similar mental conditions. The primary difference is the main issue that the individual faces.
In those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for example, they experience a significantly reduced attention span. Quelling impulses isn’t the primary challenge. They’ll struggle to maintain focus, keep their minds from jumping to new topics, or complete tasks.
People with impulsive behavior disorders, on the other hand, struggle the most with denying their compulsion.
What can be most disconcerting to parents of children, teenagers, and adults challenged by compulsivity is in assessing whether the behaviors are attributed to childhood insecurity, unhealthy outlets of stress, or a serious personality disorder. Whether impulsiveness is exhibited through food issues, trichotillomania (pulling of the hair), aggressive reactions to themselves or others, these too can be signs and symptoms of varied drug addictions.
There may be multiple behavioral disorders co-occurring. Seeking help from a licensed, behavioral health expert, sooner than later, is crucial to uncovering the root problem(s) and finding answers.
The Causes of Impulsive Behavior Disorders
Medical professionals and scientists have yet to discover a definitive root cause of impulse disorders, although there are factors suspected to influence an individual’s condition. These can be physical, biological, psychological, emotional, cultural, societal, or in combination.
Studies suggest that particular structures in the brain affect impulse disorders. The limbic system is a section of the brain devoted to emotions and memory function. The frontal lobe, which handles planning and controlling, are the two most likely suspects. But the pre-frontal cortex is also of importance as it fuels sound decision-making. When it is out of balance or compromised, risky and impulsive behaviors can arise and go out of control.
Hormones may affect impulsive behavior disorders too. Researchers believe that compounds such as testosterone are especially at fault. These hormones are associated with violence and aggression. They’re also less present in women. This correlates with data showing that women are more prone to less violent types of control problems. For example, men are more likely to be pyromaniacs, and women more commonly suffer from kleptomania.
Differing Opinions within the Mental Health Community
Many health care professionals have divided impulse control disorders into a subgroup of existing problems. ICDs are often categorized within anxiety problems and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Studies suggest that chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, play a major role in impulsive behavior disorders.
Many ICD patients show responsiveness to medications typically used for depression and anxiety. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are a branch of antidepressants that are particularly useful.
Impulse Control Disorders and Drug Addiction
Dealing with an impulse control disorder is extremely difficult. Many sufferers fall into other mental health issues, such as depression or anxiety, as a direct result of their lack of control. Others will turn to alcohol or drugs as a coping method.
Unfortunately, a history of uncontrollable impulses means that ICD sufferers present a much higher risk of forming a dependency or addiction. Thankfully, there are plenty of proven treatment options. Medications, as stated, have offered some patients significant improvement in their symptoms.
Treating Impulse Control Disorders
Behavioral therapy also shows significant promise for ICD patients – even in those who also suffer from alcohol use disorder or drug addiction.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is effective in helping those with ICD retrain their brain to reduce the urges to act out in unhealthy ways. By combining cognitive and behavioral therapy modalities, patients learn:
- Positive self-perception, how others see them, and how the world affects their mental health
- Understanding in how they allow others’ actions to influence their own lives and,
- How facing their own interactions affects behaviors and responses in others.
Continuous CBT, coupled with mindfulness and other practices that can serve as healthy coping mechanisms offer relief when stress can trigger an episode of impulsivity.
Many patients experience positive turnarounds when they enter dedicated treatment facilities, particularly because these places are equipped to treat the underlying causes of impulse control disorders, other mental health conditions, and drug or alcohol dependency.
Unsure If You or a Loved One Has an Impulsive Behavior Disorder?