Understanding Impulse Control Disorder & Addiction

impulse control disorder

Written By: Geraldine Orentas

Geraldine is Lighthouse Recovery Institute’s Digital Marketing Manager. She has a Bachelor’s in Journalism and experience in the digital media industry. Geraldine’s writing allows her to share valuable information about mental health, wellness, and drug addiction facts, hoping to shed light on the importance of therapy and ending the stigma.
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Geraldine. "Understanding Impulse Control Disorder & Addiction." Lighthouse Recovery Institute., Last updated Dec 14, 2020 at 11:39AM | Published on Dec 14, 2020, https://lighthouserecoveryinstitute.com/understanding-impulse-control-disorder-addiction/.

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Last updated Dec 14, 2020 at 11:39AM | Published on Dec 14, 2020 | Mental Health

An impulse control disorder causes someone to have difficulty controlling emotions or behaviors. While they’re widely misunderstood, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) estimates that 10.5% of the general population struggles with an impulse control disorder. Most of the time, those suffering are misdiagnosed or overlooked, thus not getting the help they need. Let’s understand this condition better and expose its dangerous link to addiction. 

What is an Impulse Control Disorder?

Someone with an impulse control disorder cannot resist a forceful urge to do something that may violate the rights of others or conflict with societal norms. These impulses often happen repeatedly and quickly, without any consideration of the consequences. A lack of impulse control may be associated with certain neurological disorders, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Impulse control disorders (ICDs) can be challenging to diagnose and recognize. There is no single cause for impulse control disorders. Temperamental, physiological, environmental, and genetic factors may play a role in developing the condition.

Signs of Impulse Control Disorder

Signs and Symptoms

Although it’s not easy to identify this disorder, some signs and symptoms stand out. Usually, these behaviors are unmanageable or seriously disrupt someone’s everyday life. Most symptoms begin during adolescence, but it’s also possible for ICDs to not show up until adulthood. The most common symptoms of impulse control disorder include:

  • Behavioral Symptoms: stealing, starting fires, risky or promiscuous behavior, hypersexuality, internet addiction, lying, and aggressive behaviors. 
  • Cognitive Symptoms: obsessive behavior, irritability or agitation, flying into a rage, and poor concentration. 
  • Social and Emotional Symptoms: isolation, low self-esteem, detachment, anxiety, drastic shifts in moods and thoughts, constant feelings of guilt, and regret.

Related Conditions

So far, the root cause of impulse control disorder remains unknown. Chemical changes in the frontal lobe and changes in dopamine might play a role. Mostly because the frontal lobe is responsible for controlling impulses. Other types of impulse control disorders include:

  • Conduct Disorder: occurs when people exhibit anger and aggression that can pose a danger to other people, animals, and property.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder: causes people to experience angry and aggressive outbursts.
  • Oppositional defiant disorder: people become easily angered, rebellious, and argumentative while also displaying vindictive behaviors. 
  • Kleptomania: an impulse and unnecessary urge to steal things that are not needed.
  • Pyromania: an obsession with fire and fire-setting paraphernalia along with a compulsive need to set fires.

In addition to these, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), Parkinson’s disease, Tourette syndrome, and substance abuse may also be related. Other impulsive behaviors include pathological gambling, compulsive sexual behavior, and shopping addiction.

Impulse Control Disorders and Addiction

ICD statistics

About 35 to 48 percent of people with intermittent explosive disorders also struggle with a substance use disorder. Similarly, 33% of people with pyromania have a substance use disorder, as well as up to 50% of those with kleptomania. 

Both disorders feature many similarities. Substance abuse and impulse control disorders are characterized by a lack of control or compulsion over behavior or a substance. The National Institutes of Health reports that as many as 82% of people suffering from intermittent explosive disorder have co-occurring substance abuse, anxiety, or depressive disorder as well.

It isn’t surprising that those with a substance use disorder are at higher risk of struggling with an ICD. Other risk factors include being subjected to trauma, abuse, neglect, exposure to violence and aggression, and genetic predisposition—very similar risk factors to addiction. 

Coping and Treatment Options

Instead of labeling someone with these symptoms “problematic,” the key is to seek professional assistance. For both children and adults, therapy is of the utmost importance to properly diagnose and treat this condition. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health reports that in 2017, about 7.4% of people aged 18 and older with a mental illness did not think that they needed treatment at the time.

It is essential for children that parents seek help from a psychotherapist to find the best ways to support their child. Modeling healthy behaviors, setting healthy boundaries, establishing a routine, and praising children for good behavior are some ways you can help a child with an impulse control disorder. 

For adults, the sooner you start speaking with someone about your struggles, the better. Because ICDs can lead to substance abuse problems and dangerous situations, seeking help immediately is critical. Finding a healthy outlet like exercise, meditation, or a hobby to help you work through your behaviors can be beneficial. 

Treatment Options

In a co-occurring disorder, a dual diagnosis program that offers a comprehensive treatment approach is more effective than treating the conditions separately. Depending on the case, someone might choose an inpatient or outpatient program to treat their conditions. 

Inpatient or Residential Programs: Are best for those who need some level of medical care, alternative therapies, and a more structured program. People with less-than-ideal living situations might find inpatient programs best suited to them. 

Intensive Outpatient Programs: Sometimes, people have a somewhat stable home setting, but they still need help to treat their illness. Intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) offer a similar structure to residential programs but with more flexibility. Here, patients get to go home every night and attend treatment during the day. 

Outpatient Programs: A much more flexible program that allows patients to retain responsibilities at work, school, and home while also seeking treatment. In this case, therapies and treatments are organized around someone’s schedule.

Therapy: By far, the central treatment for ICDs is therapy. Individual psychotherapy with cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical-behavioral therapy (DBT) can be helpful. Family therapy or couples therapy is key for addressing the issue together and mending broken relationships. 

Support Groups: Beyond group therapy, attending support group meetings can be beneficial as it gives people a judgment-free space to vent and talk about their struggles. 

Medication-Assisted Treatment: Sometimes, doctors may prescribe antidepressants or mood stabilizers to balance the brain’s chemicals to help treat the condition. 

When to Seek Help

According to survey results published by Harvard Health, less than 20% of individuals battling intermittent explosive disorder actually receive specific treatment for their rage episodes. However, when you suspect you or your loved one is displaying any signs of impulse control disorder, it’s important to seek medical attention. 

A psychological evaluation can help identify any underlying mental health disorder and any substance use disorder that could be contributing to the behavior. The same applies if you or your loved one starts experiencing negative consequences at work or school due to their behaviors. 

The sooner you reach out for help, the better the outcome. Diagnosing ICDs can be difficult and may take time as therapists and doctors sort out other potential conditions. If you recognize any of the signs above, don’t label them as mere personality issues, these outbursts could result from a much serious condition. 

Finding Help Near Me

If you or a family member is struggling with a co-occurring disorder, seek help immediately. At Lighthouse Recovery Institute, our dual diagnosis programs aim to provide comprehensive and personalized treatment for everyone. From medical detox to residential treatment programs that incorporate evidence-based psychotherapies as well as group therapy and more. Our treatment programs can help you find the help you need to start your recovery and finally enjoy a fulfilling life.

🛈 This page’s content is not intended to substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek your physician’s advice or another qualified health provider with any medical condition questions—full medical disclaimer.

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