Impulse Control Disorders and Substance Abuse

Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are psychiatric disorders marked by impulsivity, or the failure to resist temptation, an urge or impulse, or the inability to resist expressing a thought.

Features of Impulse Control Disorders

Impulse control disorders are characterized by four primary features, which include the following:

  • The propagation of repeated adverse behaviors despite negative consequences
  • An increasing lack of control over performing these behaviors
  • Mounting tension or cravings to engage in these negative behaviors before acting on them
  • A sense of relief, satisfaction, or pleasure during or after performing these problematic behaviors

Males may be slightly more inclined to impulse control disorders than females, and these disorders may often co-occur with other mental health disorders or with issues involving substance abuse.

Types of Impulse Control Disorders

Impulse control disorders are usually diagnosed during the late teenage years or early adulthood. They may be considered behavioral addictions, as the lack of control, cravings, and release and rush produced by engaging in certain behaviors are strong indicators of addiction.

Different types of impulse control disorders are described as follows:

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

This disorder is identifiable by persistent tantrums, or explosive episodes, that are out of proportion to the situation. Impulsivity, aggression, violence, rage, verbal outbursts, threats, and physical harm to people or things may accompany an episode. These outbursts may only last about a half-hour and come about swiftly without warning.

Months may pass between significant episodes, although less significant outbursts may occur in between larger ones. These episodes may lead to legal or financial issues, put strain person’s interpersonal relationships, cause considerable stress, and result in problems at work or school.


Kleptomania is characterized by the Impulsive and unnecessary theft of things that are not needed. People may steal items and hoard them, give them away, or try to return them to receive money back. It is believed that the disorder is not about allocating the things stolen, but instead about a preoccupation with stealing and loss of self-control over this compulsion.

People who experience kleptomania may feel intense guilt or shame after the initial satisfaction of stealing wears off. Legal troubles due to theft are extremely common for individuals who struggle with kleptomania.


A person who repeatedly and intentionally sets fires may suffer from pyromania. This disorder is characterized by an attraction to or obsession with fire and fire-setting paraphernalia, along with an obsessive need to start fires and feelings of satisfaction after doing so. These individuals do not set fires for any reason other than to satisfy their compulsion or to alleviate their increasing tension.

Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder manifests as a repetitive and persistent pattern of behavior among children and adolescents in which the rights of other people or basic social norms are infringed. The child or adolescent likely exhibits these behavior patterns in a variety of settings, and they result in marked impairment in his or her academic, social, and family functioning.

Behaviors characteristic of conduct disorder include the following:

  • Aggressive behavior that results in or threatens harm to other people or animals, such as bullying, intimidation, physical fights, or animal cruelty
  • Non-aggressive conduct that may result in loss or damage of property, such as fire-setting or the willful destruction of another’s property
  • Deceitfulness or theft, such as breaking into someone’s house or car, or lying to or conning others

Getting Help for Co-Occurring Disorders

Those experiencing co-occurring disorders, such as impulse control and substance abuse use disorders, may not be willing to seek treatment on their own. Often, however, a loved one or family member may be able to help the person acknowledge the need for help and the potential benefits of undergoing a professional treatment program.

Treatment for ICD and Substance Abuse

In the case of comorbid disorders, a primary care provider, mental health practitioners, and addiction treatment professionals may all collaborate to develop an integrated treatment plan. This plan will be based on an assessment that will consider symptoms of both disorders, medical and mental health histories, and the individual’s treatment goals.

Outpatient programs can differ in their composition. Intensive outpatient programs are comparable to residential programs in structure and schedule during the day, the main difference being that the person returns to a private residence each night. Flexible outpatient programs can be designed to fit into a person’s schedule and life responsibilities.

Impulse control disorders and substance abuse can be treated with a variety of methods within a treatment program. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a commonly used type of psychotherapy that helps individuals learn to modify harmful thought patterns and change them into more positive ones, which can also positively change one’s behavior.

CBT works on the regions of the brain that are impacted by an impulse control disorder and/or addiction. It teaches individuals experiencing these disorders new methods of coping and techniques for controlling impulses and managing triggers as they occur.

Individuals who suffer from an impulse control disorder and substance abuse are highly encouraged to seek professional treatment. We can help you reclaim the life you deserve, and provide you with the tools and support you need to maintain long-lasting sobriety and wellness! Contact us today!

Related: CPTSD and Substance Abuse

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