Impulse Control Disorders: Types, Causes, and Treatment
Impulse control disorders are a group of mental health conditions characterized by the inability to resist harmful impulses or urges. These disorders are marked by a pattern of repeated behaviors that are often difficult to control, despite negative consequences.
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
February 14, 2023
Table of Contents
What are impulse control disorders?
Impulse control disorders refer to a group of mental health conditions that are characterized by difficulty controlling one’s impulses or urges, resulting in harmful or damaging behavior. Individuals with impulse control disorders often struggle with intense feelings of tension or excitement before engaging in impulsive behaviors, followed by feelings of guilt, shame, or regret afterward. In this blog, we will explore impulse control disorders in greater detail, including their prevalence, common symptoms, and available treatment options.
Understanding impulse control disorders
Impulse control disorder is a relatively common mental health condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide. People with impulse control disorders experience strong urges or impulses that they cannot resist, leading to problematic behavior that can negatively impact their lives and relationships. Impulse control disorders can manifest in various ways, including addictive behaviors, gambling disorder, kleptomania, pyromania, and intermittent explosive disorder.
How common are impulse control disorders?
Research has found that about 10.5% of the general population is estimated to have an impulse control disorder. While these disorders can affect anyone, they are more prevalent in males than females and are often comorbid with other mental health conditions, such as depression, anxiety, or substance abuse disorders.
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What causes impulse control disorders?
Impulse control disorders are complex conditions that can arise from a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors.
Some possible causes of impulse control disorders include:
Research suggests that genetics may play a role in the development of impulse control disorders. Some studies have shown that people with a family history of these disorders are more likely to develop them themselves.
Changes in the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin and dopamine, may contribute to impulse control disorders. Specifically, there are three main neurotransmitters that are thought to be involved: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a critical role in the brain’s reward system. It is released when we engage in pleasurable activities such as eating, exercising, or having sex. Individuals with impulse control disorders may have an increased sensitivity to dopamine.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is involved in regulating mood, anxiety, and impulse control. Low levels of serotonin have been associated with an increased risk of developing impulse control disorders.
Norepinephrine is related to how the body responds to stress. Individuals with impulse control disorders have been found to have higher levels of norepinephrine.
Trauma and stress
Traumatic events or chronic stress can affect brain function and increase the risk of developing impulse control disorders.
Environmental factors such as upbringing, peer pressure, and exposure to addictive substances can also contribute to the development of impulse control disorders.
Mental health conditions
It’s worth noting that impulse control disorders are complex conditions, and the causes can vary from person to person. It’s important to seek professional help if you suspect that you or a loved one may have an impulse control disorder.
Common co-occurring disorders with impulse control disorders
Impulse control disorders are often associated with other mental health conditions, and individuals with these disorders may experience co-occurring conditions. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders with impulse control disorders include:
Individuals with impulse control disorders may experience symptoms of anxiety, such as excessive worry, fear, and nervousness.
Individuals with impulse control disorders may experience symptoms of depression, such as low mood, loss of interest in activities, and feelings of worthlessness.
Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Individuals with impulse control disorders may also have ADHD, which can lead to difficulties with attention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Substance use disorders
Substance use disorders often co-occur with impulse control disorders, as individuals may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with their impulses or to numb the negative emotions that often come with these disorders. This can result in drug abuse, drug addiction, alcohol abuse, and other behavior that may harm individuals’ well-being.
Individuals with impulse control disorders may also have personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder or antisocial personality disorder, which can lead to difficulties with emotional regulation, impulsivity, and interpersonal relationships.
It’s important to note that individuals with impulse control disorders may also experience another co-occurring mental health disorder, and an accurate diagnosis and treatment plan should be determined by a mental health professional. Treatment for co-occurring disorders may involve a combination of medication, behavioral therapy, and lifestyle changes.
What are the types of impulse control disorders?
There are several types of impulse control disorders, including:
- Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
A condition characterized by sudden, uncontrolled outbursts of anger or aggression that are out of proportion to the situation.
A condition characterized by a recurrent urge to steal items that are not needed for personal use or monetary gain.
A condition characterized by a recurrent urge to set fires, which is not done for monetary gain, revenge, or as an expression of a political ideology.
A condition characterized by recurrent pulling out of one’s hair, resulting in noticeable hair loss and distress.
- Gambling disorder
A condition characterized by persistent and recurrent compulsive gambling behavior (also known as pathological gambling) despite negative consequences.
- Substance use disorders
A condition characterized by continued use of a substance despite negative consequences.
What is the most common impulse control disorder?
The most common impulse control disorder is intermittent explosive disorder (IED). IED is characterized by episodes of impulsive aggression, often resulting in verbal or physical confrontations with others. Individuals with IED may experience intense feelings of irritability, anger, or frustration that culminate in sudden outbursts that are out of proportion to the situation’s trigger.
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How do you know if you have impulse control issues?
If you’re concerned that you may be struggling with impulse control issues, several common signs and symptoms can indicate that you may have an impulse control disorder. These include:
- Experiencing frequent and intense urges to engage in certain behaviors.
- Difficulty resisting these urges, even if you know that they are harmful or problematic.
- A sense of tension or excitement that builds before engaging in the impulsive behavior.
- Feelings of shame, guilt, or regret afterward.
Approaches to therapy for impulse control disorders
Treatment approaches for impulse control disorders typically involve a combination of psychotherapy, medication, and support groups. Here are some of the most common approaches to impulse control disorder treatment:
Cognitive behavioral therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy is a type of psychotherapy that focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors that contribute to impulse control disorders. This approach helps patients identify triggers that lead to their impulsive behavior and teaches them coping skills to manage those triggers.
Some medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been found to be helpful in treating impulse control disorders. These drugs can help regulate the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain that play a role in impulsivity.
Joining a support group can help individuals with impulse control disorders connect with others who are going through similar struggles. Support groups provide a safe space for people to share their experiences, discuss coping strategies, and receive emotional support.
Mindfulness-based approaches, such as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), can help individuals with impulse control disorders learn to be more aware of their thoughts and emotions, and to develop greater self-control.
Psychodynamic therapy aims to help individuals with impulse control disorders gain insight into the unconscious thoughts and emotions that may be driving their impulsive behavior. This approach can help patients develop more adaptive coping strategies and improve their relationships with others.
How can you help a child with impulse control issues?
If you have a child who is struggling with impulse control issues, several strategies can help. These include setting clear boundaries and consequences, providing positive reinforcement for good behavior, teaching problem-solving skills, and working with a qualified mental health professional to develop an effective treatment plan.
Impulse control disorder support at Charlie Health
Impulse control disorders are a common and challenging mental health condition that can negatively impact an individual’s life and relationships. However, effective treatment is available, and with the right support, individuals with impulse control disorders can learn to manage their impulses and lead fulfilling lives.
Charlie Health’s virtual IOP combines individual therapy, supported groups, and family therapy to comprehensively and effectively treat people struggling with severe mental health issues. If you are struggling with the current level of care you’re receiving or need assistance as you return home from an inpatient setting. Our Admissions Team is available 24/7 to discuss your needs and goals. Reach out today.