Controlling impulses is a hallmark of psychological maturity that distinguishes humans from other species. While anyone can have difficulty controlling impulses on occasion, this behavior sometimes becomes so extreme â€” endangering the individual and others â€” that it merits a psychiatric diagnosis.
That’s where the term “impulse control disorder” comes into play. Some researchers refer to impulse control disorders as “behavioral addictions,” because patients with impulse control disorders display addictions to certain actions and don’t feel at rest until the action has been committed.
Although the exact cause of impulse control disorders is still unknown, researchers believe that physical, biological, emotional, cultural and environmental factors all come into play.
Impulse control disorders frequently occur in conjunction with other mental illnesses, which can complicate diagnosis and treatment. Some psychologists consider impulse control disorders a subset of other conditions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
The hallmark of an impulse control disorder is a feeling of increased tension or arousal until an act is committed, which at first prompts feelings of pleasure, gratification and relief. Later, however, relief and pleasure can give way to strong feelings of guilt and regret. The acts may or may not be planned, but generally it fulfills an immediate and conscious desire. Most patients with impulse control disorders feel a loss of control over their lives and are highly distressed over their inability to control these urges.
Cognitive therapy, behavioral therapy, support groups and medication have all been used to treat patients with impulse control disorders. Specifically, medication used to treat depression and anxiety can help treat impulse control disorders.
Different Forms of Impulse Control Disorders
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders specifies six categories of impulse control disorder:
- Intermittent explosive disorder: Seen primarily in males, intermittent explosive disorder is characterized by a loss of control and aggressive behavior, often resulting in a violent outburst out of proportion to the triggering episode.
- Kleptomania: Seen primarily in females, kleptomania has much in common with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Patients with kleptomania feel compelled to steal property they often don’t need (sometimes, they may not even want the object in question â€” they’re just compelled to take it).
- Pathological gambling: Diagnosed on the basis of the impact it has on a patient’s life, pathological gambling can cause significant personal and financial issues.
- Pyromania: A rare form of impulse control disorder, pyromania involves setting fires for pleasure, followed by a temporary sense of release and gratification.
- Trichotillamania: Linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder and mainly seen in females, trichotillamania is the pulling of one’s hair until the hair loss causes distress or impairs one’s ability to function.
- Dermatillomania: Also linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, dermatillomania, or “skin picking,” can result in damage to the fingers, chest and face.
Hucker, S. J. (2005). Impulse control disorders. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.forensicpsychiatry.ca/impulse/overview.htm.
Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. (2009). About us. Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.impulsecontroldisorders.org/.
Ploskin, D. (2007). What are impulse control disorders? Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://psychcentral.com/lib/2007/what-are-impulse-control-disorders/.