Understanding Impulsive Behavior and Impulse Control Disorders

Gambler with blank look at slot machine
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Impulsive behaviors are those that occur quickly without control, planning or consideration of the consequences of that behavior. Impulsive behaviors tend to be connected with immediate positive consequences (for example, relief from emotional pain). However, in the long-term, there may be a number of negative consequences, such as greater emotional distress or regret. As an example, deliberate self-harm is sometimes considered an impulsive behavior.

A person with impaired impulse control (also called impulse control disorder) is repeatedly unable to resist the sudden, forceful urge to do something that may cause self-harm or harm to others.

Many people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) struggle with a variety of impulsive behaviors. When this happens often or seriously disrupts everyday life, impulse control disorders are a likely cause.

Typically the impulsive action results from release of stress that has built to the point where the person can no longer resist it. The immediate sense of relief is only short-term, however. Feelings such as guilt or shame may follow, and repeated impulsive acts can lead to serious problems.

Common Types of Impulse Control Disorders

This category of mental health problems includes a variety of impulsive actions. For example, addictive behaviors, such as pathological gambling, may be considered impulse control disorders. Some people also consider non-suicidal self-injury to be an impulse control disorder.

You may be familiar with some common types of impulse control disorders, which include:

Pyromania. People with this impulse control disorder deliberately start fires without regard to the destruction or injury their actions may cause.

Trichotillomania. This is impulsive hair-pulling and, sometimes, hair-eating. Stress and anxiety may make it worse. Some people with this type of impulse control disorder don't realize they're pulling out their hair.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder. This type of impaired impulse control is diagnosed when a person has several times 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.​

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 unneeded items or things that have little value.​

Compulsive or Pathological Gambling. At least five of the following factors must be present for a person to be considered a gambler driven by impaired impulse control:

  • A fixation on gambling
  • A need to gamble with more and more money in order to achieve a certain level of excitement
  • Repeated unsuccessful efforts to stop or cut down on gambling
  • Feeling restless and irritable while trying to stop gambling
  • Gambling in order to reduce distress levels or to escape and forget about problems
  • Continuing to gamble when there's no money left
  • Lying to family members or other significant people to keep them from finding out about the gambling
  • Taking the risk of illegally obtaining money to gamble 
  • Losing a job, relationship, career, or similar opportunity because of the inability to stop gambling
  • Relying on others to help out with finances that gambling has reduced

Similar to intermittent explosive disorder, studies have found a connection between PTSD and pathological gambling.

Keep in mind that there are other impulse control disorders besides the ones described here. If you're struggling with these behaviors or similar ones, get help.

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