Impulsive Behavior and Impulse Control Disorders

Gambler with blank look at slot machine
Helene Vallee / Getty Images

A person with an impulse control disorder is often unable to resist the sudden, forceful urge to do something that may violate the rights of others or conflict with societal norms. These impulsive behaviors may occur repeatedly, quickly and without consideration of the consequences of the actions. Pyromania (intentionally starting fires) and kleptomania (the urge to steal) are well-known examples, but there are others.

Signs and Symptoms

There are some signs and symptoms that may point to an impulse control disorder in some individuals. It is not always easy to identify a disorder, but the following flags may be cause for attention.

  • Behavioral symptoms: Stealing, lying, starting fires, risky or promiscuous behavior, aggressive or volatile behaviors
  • Cognitive symptoms: Obsessive behavior, being irritable or agitated, flying into a rage, and poor concentration abilities
  • Social and emotional symptoms: Low self-esteem, social withdrawal or isolation, detachment and/or anxiety, drastic shifts in thoughts and moods, and feelings of guilt or regret

When a Behavior Becomes a Disorder

Typically, an impulsive action results from the tension that has built to the point where the person can no longer resist it. The immediate sense of relief from acting on impulsive behavior is short-lived, however.

Feelings such as guilt or shame may follow, and repeated impulsive acts may lead to a number of negative consequences, such as greater emotional distress or regret, in the long term.

When the emotional toll or impulsive behavior becomes unmanageable or seriously disrupts everyday life, an impulse control disorder is a likely cause.

Risk Factors

Both internal and external stressors are known triggers for impaired impulse control. Many types of impulse control disorders are thought to stem from underlying neurological vulnerabilities coupled with environmental stresses.

Some risk factors include:

  • Being male (males are more prone to impulse control disorders than females)
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Chronic drug or alcohol use
  • Being subjected to trauma, abuse, or neglect
  • Exposure to violence or aggression

Certain types of chemical imbalances may contribute to an impulse control disorder in some individuals. Additional mental health issues, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), often coexist in people with an impulse control disorder.

Common Types and Treatments

The term impulse control disorder is a category of mental health problems that include disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disorders. Some common types of impulse control disorders include:

Pyromania

People with this type of impulse control disorder deliberately start fires without regard to the destruction or injury their actions may cause. It is common for many convicted arsonists with evident pyromania to also have personality disorders such as antisocial and borderline personality disorders.

Treatment often includes addressing any underlying mental illness with medication. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have also been used.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Intermittent explosive disorder is diagnosed when a person has, on multiple occasions, acted on aggressive impulses and committed seriously aggressive acts, such as assault or destruction of property. One way it's identified is by the severity of the person's aggressive behavior (it's well out of proportion to the trigger that preceded it).

Studies have found a link between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and intermittent explosive disorder.​

Individuals with intermittent explosive disorder may benefit from treatment that includes both medication and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Kleptomania

This is the constant and irresistible urge to steal. Kleptomania is unusual in that people with this impulse control disorder may often steal things that have little personal or monetary value.​

Kleptomania may have subtypes that are more like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and others that are more similar to addictive and mood disorders. It is common for people with kleptomania (and their first-degree relatives) to have other comorbid psychiatric or addiction issues.

Effective treatment options for kleptomania may vary depending on the subtype evident in the individual. Cognitive behavior therapy and medication have been shown to be effective. Lithium, anti-epileptics, and opioid antagonist medications have shown promise in certain circumstances.

A Word From Verywell

There are other impulse control disorders besides the ones described above. A trained professional can provide a full evaluation and a comprehensive treatment program that builds and strengthens social skills. For example, a therapist may focus on problem-solving, ways to overcome a fixation with instant gratification, and strategies to curb impulses through techniques that help develop better self-control.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Burton PRS, McNiel DE, Binder RL. Firesetting, Arson, Pyromania, and the Forensic Mental Health Expert. Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 2012; (40)3:355-365.

  2. Fanning JR, Lee R, Coccaro EF. Comorbid intermittent explosive disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder: Clinical correlates and relationship to suicidal behavior. Compr Psychiatry. 2016;70:125-33. doi:10.1016/j.comppsych.2016.05.018

  3. Talih FR. Kleptomania and potential exacerbating factors: A review and case report. Innov Clin Neurosci. 2011;8(10):35-9.

Additional Reading