Disinhibition (Impulsivity) in BPD

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Disinhibition is saying or doing something on a whim, without thinking in advance of what could be the unwanted or even dangerous result. There’s also another way to think of disinhibition: as reduced control over your impulses, or urges, which means being unable to stop, delay, or change (“inhibit”) an action that is not appropriate for the situation you’re in.

Disinhibition is the opposite of inhibition, which means being in control of the way you respond to what’s going on around you.

You Know More About Disinhibition Than You May Think

Do the definitions provided above sound familiar, even if you haven’t heard the word ”disinhibition” before?

If you have borderline personality disorder (BPD), chances are you’ve seldom, or possibly never, been called “disinhibited.” But you’ve likely heard the word “impulsive” many times. That’s right: Disinhibition and impulsiveness (also called impulsivity) are essentially the same thing. Disinhibition is common in people with BPD.

Not all states of disinhibition are due to mental health disorders, such as BPD. For example, a traumatic brain injury can lead to disinhibition. Certain medications, such as benzodiazepines, some sleep medications, drugs of abuse and alcohol, can also lead to disinhibition.

Of course, everyone has moments when their “uninhibited” behavior does no harm and even contributes to having a good time, such as energetic dancing at a party. In contrast, disinhibition, as the word is used by mental health professionals, is always harmful to some degree to the person behaving impulsively.

What Does Disinhibition Look Like?

Disinhibited or impulsive actions often have unwanted or even harmful outcomes. Why? Because they range from behavior that’s simply inappropriate, such as suddenly grabbing food off someone else’s plate, to unnecessarily risky and even dangerous, such as stealing, setting fires, explosive attacks of rage, or self-injury.

Stages of Disinhibition

You can think of disinhibition as occurring in stages even though only a few seconds may pass between thinking of the impulsive act and doing it:

  • Stage 1: You feel a sense of increasing tension or arousal, an urge.
  • Stage 2: You commit the impulsive act. During it, you may feel pleasure, relief, and/or a sense of fulfillment or satisfaction.
  • Stage 3: After the act, you may feel guilt or regret. You also may blame yourself for doing what you did.

Do Addictions Involve Disinhibition?

Yes. Disinhibition is a key feature of many if not all addictions. Examples include addictive gambling, sex addiction, shopping addiction (especially if you can't afford it), and substance abuse.

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By Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD
 Kristalyn Salters-Pedneault, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.