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Impulse Control Disorder And Addiction

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

Medically reviewed by

Isaac Alexis, M.D., AAMA, AMP-BC

June 20, 2019

A person with an impulse control disorder does not feel in control of his or her impulses. This can lead to a number of problems in a person’s life. There are five different types of impulse control disorder. These include kleptomania, pyromania, intermittent explosive disorder, pathological gambling, and trichotillomania.

An impulse control disorder is when a person is unable to control sudden urges to do something that hurts themselves or others. People with impulse control disorders often act on their impulses without consideration of the consequences.

Someone with an impulse control disorder will likely experience trouble in occupational and social settings. They may also experience legal and financial difficulties due to their condition.

The following characteristics are used to define impulse control disorder:

  • continued impulsive behavior despite consequences
  • difficulty controlling problematic behavior
  • strong cravings or urges to engage in problematic behavior
  • experiencing pleasure when acting in problematic behavior

People with impulse control disorder often feel immense tension to act out in a certain way. This tension may build to where they can no longer resist, leading them to act on their impulses. People will often feel a sense of immediate relief once the impulse has been acted on.

Everyone certainly experiences impulses and occasionally acts impulsively. However, an impulse control disorder is when impulsive behavior results in unmanageability and extreme disruption in everyday life.

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Types Of Impulse Control Disorder

There are five different types of impulse control disorders that are considered formal conditions. In addition to these disorders, other mental health conditions may also have characteristics of an impulse control disorder. However, these five types are considered stand-alone conditions.

The five types of impulse control disorder include:

  • Pyromania — This condition characterizes the uncontrollable impulse to set fires. People with pyromania often feel an intense urge that is only relieved by starting a fire. They may also feel pleasure when setting fires.
  • KleptomaniaKleptomania is when a person experiences the urge to steal and acts on it. People with kleptomania do not steal out of necessity. They steal because it feels good and they cannot resist the impulse.
  • Intermittent Explosive DisorderThis condition is when a person cannot control the urge to respond angrily to a seemingly minor trigger. Anger outbursts are often excessive compared to the triggering event.
  • Trichotillomania — Trichotillomania is when a person cannot resist the impulse to pull out his or her hair. This can be hair that is on the head or on the body. The impulse to act in this behavior outweighs any pain that may be experienced as a result.
  • Pathological Gambling — This condition, also referred to as compulsive gambling, is when a person cannot resist the urge to gamble.

Some people with impulse control disorder may not fall into any of these categories. In this case, they may be diagnosed with what is referred to as unspecified impulse control disorder. This is when a person’s impulses do not fall into a specific behavioral category.

Symptoms Of Impulse Control Disorder

Symptoms of an impulse control disorder will vary depending on the condition the person has. However, there are a few symptoms that are typically shared in most people with an impulse control disorder.

These symptoms may include:

  • obsessive behavior
  • lack of patience
  • poor concentration
  • inability to resist the urge to act on an impulse
  • tension and anxiety before acting on an impulse
  • continued impulsive behavior despite negative consequences

People with impulse control disorder may also be socially withdrawn and isolated. They may feel constant guilt or regret as a result of their impulsive actions.

Risk Factors Of Impulse Control Disorder

While there are no concrete explanations for the development of an impulse control disorder, there are risk factors that may contribute to this condition. Many impulse control disorders are believed to be triggered by both internal and external factors.

Some risk factors that may contribute to impulse control disorders include:

  • childhood abuse or exposure to violence
  • substance abuse
  • genetics
  • additional mental health conditions such as depression
  • chemical imbalances in the brain

These risk factors do not guarantee that a person will develop an impulse control disorder. Many people experience one or many of these factors and never struggle with impulse control. However, people with this condition often experience one or many of these risk factors.

Impulse Control Disorder And Substance Abuse

According to the Substance Use and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly eight million people suffer from co-occurring mental health and substance use disorders. Impulse control disorder is one of the mental health conditions that may coincide with drug and alcohol abuse and addiction.

Drug and alcohol addiction and impulse control disorders are similar conditions. Many people who abuse and are addicted to substances cannot control the urge to use. In fact, these two conditions used to be considered as part of the same category of mental health disorders.

When a person abuses drugs or alcohol, especially in his or her teens and 20s, the part of the brain responsible for decision making and impulse control can become damaged. This, in turn, can contribute to the development of an impulse control disorder.

A co-occurring impulse control disorder and substance use disorder can increase the risk of the negative side effects of both conditions. Both conditions can influence the other, resulting in increased impulsive and potentially dangerous behaviors.

Left untreated, these co-occurring conditions can negatively impact every aspect of a person’s life.

Getting Help For Impulse Control Disorder And Addiction

There are a number of different treatment options available for individuals suffering from impulse control disorders and substance use disorders. Treatment for co-occurring disorders often includes formal programs of recovery.

Many people find success from attending a residential treatment program. Many inpatient programs offer customized plans of recovery that are catered to each individual’s unique needs and condition.

To learn more about impulse control disorder and addiction, contact a treatment specialist today.

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SAMHSA - Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders

Psychiatric Times - Impulse Control Disorders: Clinical Characteristics and Pharmacological Management

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