Impulse Control Disorders

Many substance abuse disorders and other serious psychological problems are characterized by an inability to control one’s impulses.

In many cases, the lack of impulse control is just one factor in a pattern of negative behaviors.  For some problems, however, impulse control is the key component of the disorder.

Impulse-control disorders take a variety of forms.  What all of these disorders have in common is the inability to resist impulsive behaviors and actions that are harmful to self or others.  The impulsive actions that result from these disorders can be criminal.

These are some of the most common types of impulse-control disorders:

•    Compulsive Gambling – This behavior centers on persistent pathological gambling that causes major life problems.  Not all recreational gambling is compulsive, and the amount of money gained or lost is not a factor in determining if impulse control is the root of the problem.  When an individual’s personal and work life is frequently disrupted by gambling and when the individual is unable to stop gambling despite repeated attempts, the gambling is an impulse-control disorder.

•    Kleptomania – Also known as shoplifting, this behavior involves a repeated desire to steal even when theft results in no great gain.  Often the shoplifter will have the money to pay for items that are stolen.  A feeling of pleasure and release is derived from stealing, despite the risk of detection and arrest.

•    Pyromania – This condition, more prevalent among males, involves compulsively setting fires.  This is done for pleasure and gratification, despite the legal consequences and potential loss of property and life.  Individuals suffering from this destructive condition exhibit an intense fascination with fire and are unable to resist setting fires.

•    Intermittent Explosive Disorder – Individuals who experience this disorder are unable to control violent outbursts.  These outbursts are greatly out of proportion to the conditions that trigger them and they result in harm to other people and property.  Individuals are suffering from this disorder usually have a history of problems in the areas of relationships, employment, fighting, criminal behavior and substance abuse.

•    Trichotillomania – This behavior consists of compulsively pulling out one’s own hair, even when bleeding occurs.  The hair loss is often noticeable.  Individuals with this condition experience a release from tension and even pleasure from this behavior.

•    Additional Impulse-Control Disorders – The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSMIV-TR), a standard classification of mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, formally recognizes the disorders listed above as impulse-control disorders.  However, many mental health experts also believe that destructive behaviors such as self-mutilation and sex addiction are also forms of this disorder.

Scientists are currently studying these disorders to determine if they have a neurochemical basis.  While medication may be available as a treatment option in the future, it is currently not a generally accepted form of treatment.  Self-help treatment is usually ineffective when dealing with problems related to impulse control.

In most cases, psychotherapy is required to treat the underlying psychological condition that is being manifested by destructive behavior.

Click here to learn more about Co-Occurring Disorders.