What is Impulse-Control Disorder? - Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: David White
Impulse control disorder is a classification of mental illness that contains a number of different diagnoses. Through this lesson, you will learn what defines impulse control disorders and how the various impairments can be treated.

Defining Impulse Control Disorders

If you've spent time around children, you've probably noticed some of the subtle ways that they are defiant or oppositional. In fact, thinking back to when you were a child, can you remember how you responded when someone told you not to touch something? The logical response was that you felt a strong urge to do the very thing that you were just told not to do. In children, this is generally just a way of testing boundaries with adults or satiating curiosity. But what happens if they truly can't stop themselves from doing something that they know they shouldn't do?

In psychology, a person who can't stop themselves from doing something that is potentially harmful would likely be diagnosed with an impulse control disorder (ICD). Rather than a diagnosis itself, impulse control disorder is a classification under which many different disorders such as trichotillomania or kleptomania fall. Broadly, these illnesses are characterized by an inability to resist the urge to do something that the individual knows can pose a risk to their health or safety.

For example, a person that has been diagnosed with pyromania might be unable to stop themselves from setting a fire in order to produce a feeling of relief or pleasure. It is important to know that these behaviors are involuntary, and can even be unconscious, which is why they are classified as psychological disorders.

Symptoms of ICD

Because there are a number of different impulse control disorders, the symptoms generally depend on which impairment a person might have. For example, a person with intermittent explosive disorder might become irrationally frustrated or angered by something that is ordinarily insignificant, often developing quickly into a fit of rage. In this case, the symptoms are very obvious: quick to anger irrationally, loss of control, or sweating.

Symptoms of intermittent explosive disorder can include visible rage.

For a person suffering from trichotillomania, on the other hand, the symptoms may be easier to hide. Trichotillomania is a disorder that causes a person to pull out their own hair in order to relieve tension or achieve a feeling of pleasure. People with this disorder often have small or large bald spots on their head or other parts of their body.

Despite variations in symptoms, there are certain consistencies that are seen in people struggling with impulsivity. In general, an impulsive episode starts when a person feels the urge to do something that they shouldn't, which then becomes a source of stress or anxiety until they are unable to resist. Having acted on the urge, the behavior is followed by a tremendous feeling of relief, which is often followed by a strong feeling of guilt.

Impulsivity generally occurs in four stages and typically results in the fifth.

For example, a person suffering from kleptomania (an inability to resist the urge to steal) might be shopping at a grocery store and suddenly feel an incredibly strong urge to steal something. At first the person would resist the urge or push the thoughts away, but eventually it becomes so strong that it disrupts their sense of calm and is the only thing that they can focus on. At this point, the fastest and easiest way to make the tension or anxiety go away is to steal something. But once they've done that, they may feel an incredible sense of guilt because they know that what they did was wrong.

Treating ICD

Historically, impulse control disorders have been difficult to treat for a number of reasons. Because many of the behaviors (setting fires, stealing, and loss of self-control) are considered deviant by society, a person may be ashamed of themselves and therefore not seek treatment. Moreover, impulse control disorders have an effect on the reward center of the brain, which can cause behaviors to become addictive if untreated. Nevertheless, there are several different ways that these disorders are approached by clinicians, often depending on the individual affliction.

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