Impulse Control Disorders Research Articles & Resources

What Are Impulse Control Disorders?

According to the DSM-V, the manual medical professionals use to diagnose mental health conditions, an individual with an impulse control disorder (ICD) is unable to “resist an impulse, temptation, or drive to perform an act that is harmful to the person or others.” (1)

These impulse-related behaviors can hinder daily life and make it difficult to comply with the law, perform well at work or school, and maintain relationships.

Examples of impulse control disorders include:

  • Kleptomania: Urges to steal with no intention of resale, characterized by increased tension before the theft and a sense of relief after
  • Intermittent explosive disorder: Extreme difficulty controlling aggression
  • Conduct disorder: Repetitive disregard for social norms and lack of consideration for other people's rights
  • Oppositional defiant disorder: Hostility and noncooperation with authority figure
  • Pyromania: Fire setting for the sake of experiencing tension before setting the fire followed by a sense of relief afterward (2)
Impulse Control Disorders — In The News
Some Emotions May Spur Urge to Pick or Pull at Skin, Hair, Nails

WEDNESDAY, March 11, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- Boredom, frustration and impatience can trigger chronic skin-picking, nail-biting, hair-pulling and other repetitive behaviors in some people, a new study suggests. The University of Montreal researchers conducted experiments with 24 people who had these types of behaviors and a "control group" of 24... Read More


Parkinson's Drugs May Spur Compulsive Behaviors

MONDAY, Oct. 20, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Drugs commonly used to treat Parkinson's disease may raise the risk of so-called impulse control disorders, according to a new review. These disorders include compulsive gambling, compulsive shopping and/or hypersexuality. That increased risk was seen in a fresh review of a decade's... Read More


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Video game addiction is an impulse control disorder. These types of disorders are characterized by the inability to resist temptation, urge or impulse that can potentially harm oneself or others... Read More


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“A patient arrived in the office for his psychotherapy appointment. He was visibly agitated and when I asked him what happened he reported the following incident: He was driving... Read More


Are You A Compulsive Shopper?

Compulsive or pathological buying, or monomania, is defined as frequent preoccupation with buying or impulses to buy that are experienced as irresistible, intrusive, and/or senseless. The buying behavior causes marked... Read More


What Causes Impulse Control Disorders?

Genetic, developmental, environmental, and neurological factors can all potentially contribute to the development of an ICD.

According to some researchers, there's a possible link between parents with certain disorders and children being diagnosed with an ICD, but it's unclear whether genes and brain chemistry or a stressful home life are more influential. Studies show that children with conduct disorder are more likely to have caregivers with a substance use disorder, antisocial personality disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or schizophrenia. Often, guardians of kids with ODD have a mood disorder. (3)

Other risk factors include:

  • Gender, with those assigned male at birth more prone to impulse control disorders than people assigned female at birth
  • Chronic substance use
  • Experiences of trauma, neglect, or abuse
  • Exposure to aggression or violence
  • Lack of structure at school and home
  • Socioeconomic status (4)

Updates to diagnostic criteria between the DSM IV and DSM V saw some disorders reclassified from ICDs into other categories because they have different causes, symptoms, and risk factors. Those reclassified disorders include: (1) (5)

What Are the Symptoms of Impulse Control Disorders?

The primary symptoms of impulse control disorders differ from type to type: (6)

Conduct disorder

  • Seeming calculated, manipulative, and unemotional
  • Taking part in criminal activity
  • Lying regularly
  • Being destructive to items and property

Oppositional defiant disorder

  • Having difficulty following rules or completing tasks
  • Possessing an irritable and defiant disposition
  • Regularly acting in a disagreeable and disruptive manner

Intermittent explosive disorder

  • Displaying a pattern of verbal or physical outbursts that cause harm to property or people
  • Getting frustrated easily
  • Alternating between reasonable and well-behaved manner and feeling frustrated or acting out

Pyromania

  • Setting fires without being motivated by anger or revenge
  • Feeling a buildup of tension that's only released after setting a fire

Kleptomania

  • Stealing for the sake of stealing rather than for functional or financial purposes
  • Feeling irresistible urges to steal
  • Experiencing guilt and shame but also relief stealing

Why Am I So Impulsive? How Are Impulse Control Disorders Diagnosed?

Impulsive behavior isn't always disordered. Having difficulty resisting tempting urges now and then is natural. However, when a chronic lack of impulse control leads to legal issues or financial difficulties, or it prevents someone from having meaningful relationships, there could be an underlying disorder.

Impulsivity can be a symptom of a number of other mental health conditions. Cluster B personality disorders, psychosis, substance use disorders, mania, and ADHD are a few examples. To determine whether someone has an ICD, a different mental illness, or nonclinical levels of impulsivity, they should seek advice from a medical professional. A doctor will use a range of tools to provide a diagnosis.

What Is the Best Treatment for Impulse Control Disorders?

Impulse control disorder treatment is understudied, despite a relatively high percentage of the population meeting the criteria. There are no FDA drugs specifically indicated for treating ICDs, but some medications have shown promise for off-label use (prescribing the medications for purposes other than initially intended), including:

How to Cope With an Impulse Control Disorder Diagnosis

ICD is regularly diagnosed in both children and adults, and advice for coping techniques tends to differ depending on the age group affected.

If a child displays impulsive behavior, it's important for the caregiver to seek guidance from their doctor. For parents who are in the process of getting a diagnosis, the following tips can help a child cope: (7)

  • Seek family therapy
  • Ensure the child follows a healthy daily routine
  • Set a good example by curbing impulsive behavior
  • Try to focus more on praising good behavior than punishing bad behavior
  • Set clear boundaries and maintain them

Adults with ICD might feel embarrassed and/or defensive about their behavior, which can make seeking help feel uncomfortable. However, these are symptoms of a treatable disorder. Professional guidance can minimize symptoms and significantly improve quality of life.

The shame someone experiences after acting out an impulsive behavior might contribute to the development of other mental illnesses. Depression and anxiety are particularly common in people who are prone to shame, and clinicians frequently see both disorders alongside an ICD. (8) Be sure to speak openly and honestly to a doctor about every symptom to enable adequate treatment for all underlying conditions.

How to Help Someone With Impulse Control Disorders

Friends and family can help someone with an impulse control disorder by maintaining a calm and supportive demeanor, even when it's challenging. Not taking deceptive or aggressive behavior personally is another top tip for harm limitation.

That said, it can be difficult to show grace and love in the face of adversity, so loved ones shouldn't be hard on themselves if they get frustrated from time to time. Joining a support group for family members and freely expressing challenging emotions from a safe distance can help with the processing of any challenging emotions. (9)

Learn about the specific disorder for a better understanding of why a person with an ICD might act in undesirable ways. Encourage them to learn about their condition, seek treatment, and find a support group.

Sources

  1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.)
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK562279/
  3. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/impulse-control-disorders#causes
  4. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-022-12872-4
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3089999/
  6. https://www.sciencedirect.com/book/9780128054697/functional-analysis-in-clinical-treatment
  7. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/disruptive-impulse-control-and-conduct-disorders/what-are-disruptive-impulse-control-and-conduct-disorders
  8. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame/
  9. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/helping-a-loved-one-cope-with-a-mental-illness

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