What is an Impulse Control Disorder?

Studies suggest that impulsivity, in general, and impulse control disorders (ICDs) go hand-in-hand with substance use disorders (SUDs). Profound Treatment specializes in dual diagnosis and addiction treatment in Los Angeles, California. 

Understanding Impulse Control Disorders (ICDs)

Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are a group of pervasive psychiatric conditions characterized by impulses or urges that are excessive or may cause harm to oneself or others. These impulses can range from problematic behaviors such as excessive gambling, binge eating, and reckless driving to substance abuse. ICDs were formally recognized and added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in its fifth edition, the DSM-5, published by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013.

Types of ICDs

  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD): ODD is characterized by a pattern of hostile and defiant behavior towards authority figures, causing significant interpersonal and academic problems.
  • Conduct disorder (CD): CD involves persistent patterns of aggressive and antisocial behavior, often leading to legal issues and difficulties in social relationships.
  • Pathological gambling (PG): Individuals with pathological gambling, also known as gambling disorder, experience an overwhelming compulsion to gamble, often leading to severe financial, personal, and legal consequences.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (IED): Individuals with IED experience recurrent, impulsive, and uncontrollable outbursts of aggression, often leading to harm or destruction.
  • Kleptomania (KM): This disorder involves the irresistible urge to steal items that are not needed for personal use or monetary gain.
  • Pyromania: Pyromaniacs have an obsession with fire-setting, finding pleasure and relief from setting things on fire.
  • Trichotillomania (TTM): This disorder manifests as compulsive hair-pulling, leading to noticeable hair loss.
  • Compulsive buying disorder (CBD): People with CBD engage in excessive, impulsive shopping, often resulting in financial difficulties.

Causes and Risk Factors for Impulse Control Disorders

ICDs can have complex origins, and while each individual’s experience is unique, several common causes and risk factors have been identified. The consensus on the etiology of these disorders is that various factors may play a role in their origin. Some of these may include:

Genetic Predisposition

One significant factor contributing to the development of ICDs is genetic predisposition. Research has shown that individuals with a family history of impulse control issues may be more susceptible to these disorders. Genes can play a role in shaping brain structures and functions, which in turn affect an individual’s ability to regulate impulses.

Brain Chemistry Imbalances

The brain’s intricate chemical balance also likely plays a role in ICDs. Neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers in the brain, influence mood, behavior, and impulse control. Imbalances in neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine, are believed to be connected to the development of impulsive behaviors.

Traumatic Experiences

Traumatic experiences, especially during childhood, can significantly impact the development of impulse control issues. Exposure to abuse, neglect, or other forms of trauma can lead to emotional dysregulation and impulsive reactions as coping mechanisms.

Exposure to Certain Environmental Triggers

The environment in which an individual grows up and lives can expose them to certain triggers that contribute to ICDs. These triggers may include chronic stress, substance abuse within the family, peer pressure, or easy access to addictive substances. Such environmental factors can influence an individual’s susceptibility to impulsive behaviors.

Due to the complex nature of ICDs and the various factors at play, diagnosing and understanding these disorders can be challenging. It often requires a comprehensive evaluation by mental health professionals who consider not only the symptoms but also the individual’s personal history and circumstances.

The Impact of ICDs on Daily Life

Living with an ICD can be an immensely challenging experience. These disorders have far-reaching effects that can disrupt various aspects of an individual’s daily life. If left untreated, manifestations of impulse control disorders can escalate, intensifying the negative consequences on an individual’s life and leading to a range of severe and enduring issues.

Strained Relationships

ICDs can strain personal relationships, causing friction with family members, friends, and loved ones. Impulsive behaviors, such as outbursts of anger or compulsive spending, can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and emotional distance.

Financial Difficulties

Many individuals with ICDs struggle with managing their finances. Impulsive behaviors, such as excessive gambling or compulsive shopping, often result in significant financial problems. Accumulating debt and financial instability become common challenges.

Legal Problems

Certain impulsive actions, like theft or reckless behavior, may lead to legal issues. Individuals with ICDs might find themselves facing legal consequences due to actions taken without careful consideration of the consequences.

Physical Health Issues

The stress and emotional turmoil caused by ICDs can have detrimental effects on physical health. Individuals may experience elevated blood pressure, sleep disturbances, and other stress-related health issues.

Common Co-occurring Disorders

ICDs often go hand-in-hand with other co-occurring psychiatric disorders, often referred to as “dual diagnosis.” When addressing ICDs, it is essential to identify and address any co-occurring disorders as part of a comprehensive treatment plan. The following are some of the most common co-occurring disorders for individuals diagnosed with ICDs. 

Anxiety Disorders

One of the most common co-occurring disorders with ICDs is anxiety. Individuals with ICDs often struggle with overwhelming feelings of anxiety, which can be both a trigger and a consequence of impulsive behaviors. Anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, or social anxiety disorder, can exacerbate the impulsivity seen in ICDs.


Depression is another frequently co-occurring condition with impulse control disorders. The emotional turmoil and the consequences of impulsive actions can lead to a profound sense of hopelessness and sadness. Individuals may experience depressive episodes, characterized by persistent low mood, lack of interest in activities, and changes in sleep and appetite.

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) commonly co-occurs with ICDs, particularly in cases of childhood-onset ICDs. Both conditions share characteristics related to impulsivity, inattention, and difficulty in self-regulation. This overlap can make diagnosis and treatment more complex, as it’s essential to address the unique challenges posed by each disorder.

Substance Use Disorders (SUDs)

SUDs, including addiction to drugs or alcohol, frequently accompany impulse control disorders. For example, research supports that approximately 82% of individuals with IED have co-occurring psychiatric conditions, with 35-48% of those individuals having some form of substance use disorder (SUD). It’s not uncommon for individuals to use substances as a way to cope with the emotional distress and impulsivity associated with ICDs. Unfortunately, this can create a harmful cycle where substance abuse worsens impulsive behaviors and vice versa.

Borderline Personality Disorder

In some cases, individuals with impulse control disorders may also meet the criteria for borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is characterized by unstable relationships, self-image, and mood, as well as impulsive behaviors. The presence of both ICDs and BPD can lead to intense emotional and behavioral challenges.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction or another co-occurring issue like impulse control disorder, contact Profound Treatment today to learn more about our dual-diagnosis treatment programs.

Treatment Modalities for ICDs

The most effective approach to treating ICDs typically involves a combination of therapeutic modalities, counseling, and lifestyle adjustments. It’s important to recognize that the best treatment approach can vary from person to person, depending on their unique circumstances and needs.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is widely recognized as an effective treatment for ICDs. This therapeutic approach helps individuals identify their impulsive thought patterns and behaviors. CBT teaches them strategies to challenge and modify these patterns, fostering better impulse control.

Medication Management

In some cases, medication management may be a valuable component of ICD treatment. Medications can help individuals manage specific symptoms, such as anxiety or mood instability, which may exacerbate impulsive behaviors. 

Support Groups

Support groups provide individuals a safe and understanding environment to share their experiences and challenges. These groups offer a sense of community and allow participants to learn from others facing similar issues. The support and empathy received in these settings can be invaluable in the journey towards managing ICDs.

Lifestyle Changes

Lifestyle adjustments can play a significant role in ICD treatment. This may involve identifying triggers, avoiding high-risk situations, cultivating healthy habits, and practicing stress management techniques. Lifestyle changes complement therapeutic interventions and support long-term recovery.

Contact Profound Treatment Today

If you or someone you know is struggling with impulse control and is seeking professional help, Profound Treatment is here to help. Located in Woodland Hills, Los Angeles, our specialized treatment programs are designed to address these challenges. Remember, there is hope, and recovery is possible.

Call: (310) 929-9546

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