Impulse Control Disorders

What are Impulse Control Disorders

Impulse control disorders are a group of mental health disorders in which a person is unable to control his or her sudden desire to do something (impulse). People who are unable to control impulses repeatedly act without planning or thinking about consequences. A person with an impulse control disorder may:

  • Have outbursts of anger and argue with authority figures.
  • Be physically or verbally aggressive toward others.
  • Regularly break rules or laws. This may include harming people, animals, or property.
  • Steal, start fires, gamble, or engage in other risky behaviors.

Impulse control disorders typically start in the late teenage to early adult years. People with impulse control disorders often have emotional disorders or other forms of mental illness, such as drug abuse or other addiction problems. Over time, impulse disorders may cause problems in relationships and may result in legal problems.

What are the causes?

The cause of these conditions is not known.

What increases the risk?

The following factors may make you more likely to develop this condition:

  • Experiencing abuse or neglect during childhood.
  • Experiencing physical or emotional trauma during childhood.
  • Having a parent or sibling with an impulse control disorder.
  • Having another mental health condition, such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) or a substance abuse disorder.

What are the signs or symptoms?

Unlike people with other mental health, substance abuse, or general medical conditions, people with impulse control disorders cannot keep from acting on their impulses. They may:

  • Have trouble controlling emotions, especially anger.
  • Feel like they must act on an impulse when they experience strong emotions or stress.
  • Have specific impulsive behaviors that relieve tension, such as setting a fire or stealing.
  • Have anxiety, tension, or excitement before or during the impulsive behavior.
  • Feel relief or pleasure while acting on the impulse, or after acting on it.
  • Act without regard for the safety of themselves or others.
  • Act without planning ahead.
  • Feel regret or guilt after acting on an impulse.

Symptoms of impulse control disorders differ based on the specific disorder.

How is this diagnosed?

These disorders are diagnosed through an assessment by your health care provider. Your health care provider will ask questions about:

  • Your impulsive behavior.
  • Your moods.
  • Your thoughts.
  • Past and recent life events.
  • Your medical history.
  • Your use of alcohol or drugs, including prescription medicines.

Certain medical conditions, other mental illnesses, and certain substances can cause symptoms similar to impulse control disorders. You may be referred to a mental health specialist.

How is this treated?

Impulse control disorders may be treated with a combination of the following treatments:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a form of talk therapy. It focuses on reducing negative beliefs and thoughts related to impulsive behavior and replacing them with healthier thoughts and behaviors. This may be done individually or in a group setting.
  • Medicines.
  • Family intervention. This is a program that educates family members about your disorder. It teaches healthy communication and problem-solving skills, and it helps family members support you.

Follow these instructions at home:

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider. Check with your health care provider before starting any new prescription or over-the-counter medicines.
  • Keep all follow-up visits as told by your health care providers or therapists. This is important. This includes going to therapy or family intervention as directed.
  • Find a support group to talk with peers about managing stress and impulses.
  • Find healthy ways to recognize emotions and manage stress, such as:
    • Journaling.
    • Exercise.
    • Deep breathing, yoga, or meditation.

Contact a health care provider if:

  • You are not able to take your medicines as prescribed.
  • Your symptoms get worse.

Get help right away if:

  • You think about hurting yourself or others.

If you ever feel like you may hurt yourself or others, or have thoughts about taking your own life, get help right away. You can go to your nearest emergency department or call:

  • Your local emergency services (911 in the U.S.).
  • A suicide crisis helpline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. This is open 24 hours a day.

Summary

  • Impulse control disorders are a group of mental health disorders in which a person is unable to control his or her sudden desire to do something (impulse).
  • People with these disorders act impulsively through certain behaviors in order to feel relief from stress or emotional tension.
  • Treatment may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), medicines, family intervention, or a combination of these.
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