Everyone has impulsive thoughts and behaviors occasionally. However, impulse control disorders involve a persistent pattern of intense and unwavering urges, followed by the inability to control unwanted behavior.
Like with many mental health issues, there are several myths about impulse control disorder. Here we will review common misconceptions and respective facts about this group of disorders.
1. Myth: Impulse control is a single disorder.
Fact: Impulse control disorders are a group of similar conditions.
There are several types of impulse control disorders. In the DSM 5, impulse control disorders are categorized as disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorders. Below are the different types of impulse control disorders.
- Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) – ODD refers to the ongoing, persistent pattern of angry, argumentative and defiant mood. Seen in children and adolescents, these individuals tend to lose their tempers easily and struggle with authority.
- Intermittent explosive disorder – Intermittent explosive disorder refers to the inability to control the impulse of rage in response to minor or moderate triggers. The rage can manifest in emotionally charged outbursts that may include physical violence towards others.
- Conduct disorder – Conduct disorder refers to a persistent pattern of problematic behavior that violates societal norms or rules. People with conduct disorder may bully others, initiate fights, destroy property and engage in vandalism. It can occur at any stage in one’s life.
- Pyromania – Pyromania refers to the urge to set fires regardless of the potential consequences. People with this disorder engage in deliberate and purposeful fire setting.
- Kleptomania – People with kleptomania experience the intense urge to steal items. These items are not necessary for their well-being (i.e., food or medicine). Instead, they are more materialistic and unneeded.
- Other specified disruptive, impulse-control and conduct disorder – This category applies to individuals who exhibit symptoms of impulse control disorder without meeting the full criteria for the categories mentioned above.
2. Myth: Impulse control disorders aren’t “real” mental health conditions.
Fact: Impulse control disorders are diagnosable conditions that can seriously impact one’s area of functioning and quality of life.
Impulse control disorders are not conditions that “go away” on their own. In fact, the symptoms progress with frequency and intensity over time.
For example, someone with kleptomania may start by stealing the occasional lipstick from a drugstore every few months. However, as the years pass, that same person may find themself shoplifting from malls every night after work. They may create twisted stories to cover up her purchases, lie about her whereabouts and deny her behavior if confronted. A kleptomaniac may even develop more physical and psychological problems due to the shame and guilt over their actions.
Additional consequences of Impulse control disorders include:
- Financial and legal problems
- Interpersonal issues
- Academic and occupational problems
- Hopelessness, despair and frustration
- Increased depression or anxiety
- Pervasive thoughts of guilt, shame or worthlessness
- Suicidal thoughts or behavior
3. Myth: People with impulse control disorders can control their actions.
Fact: People with impulse control disorder have trouble controlling their urges.
The concept of control is a challenging one when it comes to mental illness. Many people cling onto the dangerous myths that people should be able to control their feelings, thoughts and actions.
Unfortunately, impulse control disorders do not exist on that plane of logic. People with impulse control disorders often desperately wish they could stop. Many of them try to stop repeatedly, and each failure tends to increase their emotional distress.
While it is true that some people can learn to control their urges, it is important to recognize that people do not choose to have an impulse control disorder. Instead, research shows that it likely lies in a combination of genetics, brain structure differences and other environmental factors.
4. Myth: Impulse control disorders are the result of bad parenting.
Fact: As is the case with all mental health conditions, there are no specific causes of impulse control disorders.
Instead, a variety of physical, biological and environmental factors appear to influence their development.
While a chaotic home life can cause a greater risk for impulse control disorders, it is incorrect to assume that parenting alone causes these issues. Family can play an influential role in one’s development, but it should never be considered a sole factor. Instead, risk factors appear to include:
- Pre-existing or co-occurring mental illness
- Family history of substance misuse
- History of head or brain injuries
- Chemical brain imbalances
- Persistent exposure to violence and aggression
- History of trauma
- Being male
5. Myth: Punishment is the best way to correct impulsive behaviors.
Fact: Punishment actually tends to worsen impulsive behaviors.
This is because punishment creates a sense of internal shame. The shame often leads to someone acting out in the same urges again.
Instead, treating the individual with respect, dignity and understanding often yield much better outcomes. For this reason, professional treatment may be a necessary step for learning, managing and stopping unwanted impulsive behaviors.
Impulse control disorder treatment varies from person to person, but it usually starts with individual therapy. Individual therapy allows people to receive practical support and tools for managing their symptoms.
It also allows them to explore any underlying issues without judgment. In therapy, individuals may engage in habit-reversal training. This training helps people learn how to replace one (unwanted) behavior with another (desirable behavior). Over time, this repetition can make the replacement a second-nature choice.
Some people may also benefit from medication. Certain medications can help with irritability, depression and overall mood stabilization. This treatment can be especially effective for people struggling with impulse control and co-occurring disorders. In treating these symptoms, one may be able to better control and reduce impulsive behaviors.
If you or someone you love is struggling with impulse control disorder and co-occurring addiction, The Recovery Village can help. We’re here to provide you with individualized care and support you in getting your life back on track. Contact us today to learn more about our treatment options.
American Psychiatric Association. “Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed).” 2013.
Mayo Clinic. “Intermittent Explosive Disorder.” September 19, 2018. Accessed June 10, 2019.
Browne, Dillon. “Stealing.” Healthline, June 21, 2017. Accessed June 10, 2019.
Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.