Impulsive Behavior and Impulse Control Disorders

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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 bring about conflict with societal norms. These impulsive behaviors may occur repeatedly, quickly and without consideration of the consequences of that behavior. 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: For example, stealing, lying, starting fires, risky or promiscuous behavior, and aggressive or volatile behaviors
  • Cognitive symptoms: Obsessive behavior, being irritable or agitated, flying into a rage, and poor concentration abilities, to name a few
  • Social and emotional symptoms that often show up as low self-esteem, being socially withdrawn or isolated, seeming detached and/or anxious, experiencing drastic shifts in thoughts and moods, and having feelings of guilt or regret

When a Behavior Becomes a Disorder

Typically, the impulsive action results from tension that has built to the point where the person can no longer resist it. The immediate sense of relief from acting on the impulsive behavior is only short-term, 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 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 currently 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 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 of this impulse disorder often includes addressing any underlying mental illness pharmacologically. Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have also been utilized.

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 the experience of a traumatic event 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, unlike more typical thieves, a person 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

Keep in mind that there are other impulse control disorders besides the ones described above. There are also many other signs and symptoms that may reflect these conditions. A trained professional can provide a full evaluation, explanation, as well as a comprehensive treatment program that builds and strengthens accepted social skills. For example, a therapist may choose to focus on problem-solving, ways to look at the bigger picture to help you overcome a fixation with instant gratification, and strategies to curb impulses through techniques that help develop better self-control.

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