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Impulse Control Disorder & Addiction

Essentially, impulse control disorder has to do with lacking the ability to develop and maintain a certain level of self-control.

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Impulse control disorder is something of an umbrella term that is used to describe a condition where an individual has trouble resisting acting on certain impulses.

Impulse control disorder can manifest itself in a variety of ways, which includes emotional reactions and behavioral issues. Kleptomania is often associated with impulse control disorder and so is pyromania, for instance. 

Other conditions associated with impulse control disorder include the following:

  • Eating disorders
  • Excessive gambling
  • Risky sexual behavior
  • Impulse purchasing
  • Excessive drug or alcohol use

More on Impulsivity

People who exhibit impulsivity and impulsive behavior often struggle with certain conduct disorders, which include the following:

  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)
  • Substance and alcohol misuse
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Psychotic disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Dementia

Types of Impulse Control Disorders

In an effort to break down impulse control disorders further, many can be classified under oppositional defiant disorder, intermittent explosive disorder, and conduct disorder.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is most common in the preadolescent stage. It is characterized by difficulty controlling emotions or certain types of behaviors.

ODD symptoms include disagreeableness, irritability, defiance, and inability to adhere to rules and regulations.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Intermittent explosive disorder (also called IED) occurs most commonly in late childhood and is characterized by the exhibition of anger or aggression that is altogether disproportionate to the original trigger stimulus. Often, IED is not noticeable to anyone other than the person experiencing the disorder.

IED symptoms include augmented frustration and explosive outbursts. Explosive outbursts can be verbal or physical, and they often result in injury or physical damage.

Conduct Disorder 

Conduct disorder (also called CD) most often develops during childhood and adolescence. It is generally characterized by aggressiveness, disobedience, and rebellious attitudes and behavior. 

Symptoms of conduct disorder include irrational behavior, lying, cheating, stealing, destruction of property, violent outbursts, manipulation, and engaging in illegal or criminal activities.

Impulse Control Disorder Symptoms

Symptoms of impulse control disorder can be physical, behavioral, cognitive, or psychosocial. 

Physical symptoms of impulse control disorder include causing physical harm to oneself, risky sexual behavior, and excessive drug use.

Behavioral symptoms include lying, stealing, cheating, and explosive anger.

Cognitive symptoms include a lack of patience, obsessive and/or compulsive thinking, and the inability to control certain impulses.

Psychosocial symptoms include irritability, abandonment issues, depression, anxiety, poor social skills, and emotional detachment.

What Causes Impulse Control Disorder?It remains uncertain what exactly causes impulse control disorders. 

Research suggests that certain genetic and environmental factors play a strong role in the development of impulse control disorders. Mental illness that runs in the family and unstable conditions at home are considered the primary determinants of impulse control disorders at this point in time.

A person can develop impulse control disorder from experiencing emotional and physical abuse, neglect, violence, or a lack of structure at home. Impulse control disorder can become more severe when an individual engages in friendships with people who exhibit risky behavior and partake in illegal activities.

Risk Factors

Certain individuals are more at risk for developing impulse control disorder than others.

Factors that can increase the likelihood of impulse control disorder include being male and younger in age. Individuals who have been exposed to violence and aggression are more prone to developing impulse control disorder. 

Those who are abused (especially by family members) or experience neglect have a higher probability of developing impulse control disorder. 

Family history also plays a crucial role. Mental health disorders and/or substance abuse that runs in the family can increase the likelihood of developing impulsivity and impulse control disorder.

Impulse Control & Addiction

Impulse control and addiction are closely related. One of the foremost contributors to substance abuse in teens happens to be impulse control disorders. Drug and alcohol addiction certainly involve the inability to control urges to engage in actions as well as certain types of behaviors.

In many cases, impulse control disorders manifest themselves through self-destructive behaviors. Drug and alcohol addiction most certainly fall under the category of self-destructive behavior. Often, those with impulse control disorder have a propensity to develop intense drug dependency, perhaps even more so than individuals who struggle with addiction independently of also having impulse control disorder. 

Individuals who struggle with impulse control disorder are also more likely to mix drugs (also called crossfading), take new drugs, and engage in drug-seeking behaviors.

Common Drugs Abused by Those With Impulse Control Disorder

The most common drugs and substances that are abused by individuals who live with impulse control disorder include nicotine, alcohol, marijuana, prescription drugs, and opiates. 

At the end of the day, those with impulse control disorder are more susceptible to developing drug addictions of any sort. It may simply come down to whatever substance is readily available and most easily acquired. 

Since alcohol is legal and marijuana has been decriminalized in many states across the country, these two substances are most often abused by people with impulse control disorder. Painkillers and prescription drugs are also commonly misused by people with impulse control disorder, whether they have a prescription for the medication or not.

Treatment for Impulse Control Disorder

Early detection of impulse control disorder will help individuals avoid engaging in destructive behaviors that can deeply affect a person’s quality of life and have reverberating consequences that can last a lifetime. 

Conversely, avoiding treatment for impulse control disorder can result in symptoms that increase in severity over time. Any additional drug dependencies and substance use disorders that come as a result of impulse control disorder will also worsen over time.

Treatment for impulse control disorders will vary depending on the individual. Co-occurring disorders should be treated simultaneously for best results. Generally, therapy involves identifying triggers that make impulsive behavior more likely and developing coping mechanisms to better respond to those triggers.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a popular treatment for impulse control disorder. In a general sense, CBT will examine thought processes and how they influence mood and behavior. 

Depending on the practitioner providing CBT, individuals may be required or encouraged to write in a journal and expose themselves to environments and situations that trigger impulse control disorder symptoms. Exposure to situations and stimuli that trigger impulse control issues in a controlled environment can help individuals regulate and ultimately control impulsive behavior.

Medication for Impulse Control Disorder

Certain medical professionals may prescribe different medications to help with impulse control disorder. Medication utilized for the treatment of impulse control disorder includes the following:

  • Mood stabilizers
  • Antidepressants
  • Opioid antagonists (naltrexone)

Alternative Treatments for Impulse Control Disorder

Alternative treatments have been shown to improve symptoms of impulse control disorder. When dealing with a child, parents can work to provide a stable environment and incorporate consistent parenting techniques that encourage self-control. 

Certain wellness practices — like meditation, breathing exercises, and yoga — have also been shown to help with impulse control disorder. 

Co-Occurring Disorders

Since co-occurring disorders are often present in individuals who struggle with impulse control disorder, any co-occurring disorder will need to be addressed simultaneously with impulse control disorder treatment. If only one disorder is addressed, it’s likely that relapse will occur on both fronts.

Peer Support Groups 

Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and other 12-step groups are available for individuals who struggle with substance abuse. There are also support groups available for people with impulse control disorder, including online options.

The Need for Comprehensive Care

Drug dependency is best addressed through physical detox first. This may include the use of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) as well as supportive care from medical professionals. Then, individuals generally engage in a rehabilitation program where therapy is the backbone of treatment. 

Taking a multifaceted treatment approach will give an individual the best chance of making a full recovery. Treatment doesn’t necessarily occur linearly, just as recovery might not be a straight path. But with the right help and support, people dealing with impulse control disorder and addiction can achieve a healthier, happier life.

Updated June 16, 2023
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