Impulse Control Disorder

Therapist in a session with a patient
Impulse control disorders (ICDs) are a group of behavioral conditions that make it difficult to control your actions or reactions.

Due to these problematic behaviors, you can cause harm to yourself and others. Most of the time, ICDs appear in childhood or adolescence and can continue on into adulthood, with males being slightly more prone.

It’s important to know what an ICD looks like, as these disorders are often overlooked or misdiagnosed, causing people to suffer more than they need to. By better understanding these disorders, you can get the appropriate help and improve symptoms. Treatment for ICDs usually include behavioral therapies, but medication can be helpful as well.

Lotus Recovery treats impulse control disorders, helping individuals achieve a higher quality of life. Our clients are often relieved to hear that they have one of these disorders, as they tend to go unnoticed or misdiagnosed for a long time. ICDs also commonly occur alongside other disorders—mental health and substance use—making them even harder to diagnose.

What are Impulse Control Disorders?

Individuals with ICDs have a hard time controlling their actions or reactions. This can lead to problems in their relationships with others, as well as problems with the law. There are different types of ICDs, and some examples include:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder. ODD can cause a person to lose their temper and become easily annoyed. They challenge authority and blame others for their problems. People with ODD tend to have a hard time in school, at work or in social situations.
  • Conduct disorder. This condition involves an ongoing pattern of aggression towards others. People with conduct disorder may lie or steal, damage property and be aggressive to people and animals.
  • Intermittent explosive disorder. IED is characterized by persistent impulsive and angry outbursts. They last about 30 minutes and are often triggered by minor issues. People with IED are often violent or aggressive towards people, animals or property.
  • Kleptomania. This mental health condition causes people to have an uncontrollable urge to steal things. People with the disorder know that what they are doing is wrong, but they can’t stop themselves.
  • Pyromania. Someone who deliberately sets fires may be suffering from pyromania, an irresistible urge to light things on fire. People with pyromania engage in this behavior to relieve tension. It is the rarest type of ICD.
Therapy, support and psychologist talking to a woman about mental health, depression and anxiety

What Causes Impulse Control Disorders?

There is no single cause for impulse control disorders. They stem from a variety of factors, including genetics, environment, temperament and physiology. For instance, studies show that children with ODD are more likely to have parents with mood disorders. Children with conduct disorder are more likely to have parents with ADHD, substance use disorders, schizophrenia or antisocial personality disorders.

A person’s environment also plays a role. Studies show that low socioeconomic status, community violence, childhood neglect or witnessing or experiencing abuse are all risk factors for ICDs. In terms of genetics, some research shows abnormal changes in the brain and/or hormones, primarily cortisol, in people with ICD.

There are also different risk factors for each ICD. As an example, intermittent explosive disorder tends to be more common in individuals who have a history of physical or emotional trauma, while conduct disorder is more common in those with below average intelligence and a difficult temperament.

Most people with ICD know that they are being difficult, but they can’t stop their behavior. They tend to feel an increasing internal tension and it essentially “explodes” into a certain behavior, such as starting fires, stealing something or acting out. In other words, the conflict they are having within themselves is being externalized. This is different from people with anxiety or depression, as their distress is internalized.

Dangers of Untreated Impulse Control Disorders

It’s important to appropriately diagnose an ICD, as these disorders can make life difficult for the individual and those around them. Without treatment, individuals with ICDs are more likely to:

  • Have difficulties in their relationships
  • Struggle to hold down a steady job
  • Experience angry outbursts
  • Damage property
  • Defy and disobey the law

Another issue that is concerning is the risk for substance use. When an ICD is not diagnosed and treated, the symptoms linger on in the individual, causing distress. Since these individuals are typically aware of their behavior, they may turn to substances to help them cope. Substance use can then exacerbate the symptoms, especially because substance use makes people more impulsive.

Getting Help for Impulse Control Disorders

Lotus Recovery has success in treating impulse control disorders, even when they co-occur with substance use disorders or other mental health disorders. The most prominent form of treatment is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT is a type of talk therapy that exposes the relationship between thoughts and behaviors. The goal is to help individuals replace disordered thought processes with more positive and realistic thoughts. By rationalizing these thoughts, individuals can better control their compulsive urges. If the person has a substance use disorder as well, treating this will also make it easier to control their behavior.

If you or a loved one is experiencing an impulse control disorder, know that help is available. You can successfully manage your symptoms with the right therapy and begin repairing your life. Contact Lotus Recovery to learn more about our approach to treating ICDs.