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Impulse Control Disorder


Updated June 20, 2014

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Many people with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) struggle with a variety of impulsive behaviors. When these behaviors become very frequent or have a significantly negative impact on one's life, a person may be considered to have an impulse control disorder.

What Are Impulse Control Disorders?

According to the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, impulse control disorders are mental health disorders where a person experiences the repeated inability to refrain from engaging in a behavior that is harmful in some way to themselves or other people.

A number of different types of behaviors could fit under this description. For example, addictive behaviors, such as pathological gambling, may be considered an impulse control disorder. Some people also consider non-suicidal self-injury to be an impulse control disorder.

Impulsive behaviors may be exacerbated by stress and can bring about an immediate sense of relief or gratification once the behavior has been engaged in. However, although the behavior may bring about short-term relief, it often causes more problems for people in the long-run. For example, a person may feel guilt or shame after engaging in the action. With regard to pathological gambling, a person may experience financial difficulties or harm relationships.

Although a number of behaviors could make up an impulse control disorder, the DSM-IV currently recognizes several common impulse control disorders. These include:

  • Pyromania: In pyromania, a person deliberately starts fires. This may be motivated by an attraction to, interest in, or curiosity about fire.

  • Trichotillomania: Trichotillomania describes compulsive hair-pulling behavior. This behavior may occur outside of the person's awareness and may be exacerbated by stress and anxiety. In addition to pulling hair, in some cases a person with this condition may also ingest their own hair.

  • Intermittent Explosive Disorder: This diagnosis is given when a person has several episodes of being unable to resist aggressive impulses that bring about major aggressive acts, such as assault or the destruction of property. In addition, the level of aggressiveness expressed during these episodes is well out of proportion to any trigger that preceded the episode. Studies have found a link between the experience of a traumatic event and intermittent explosive disorder.

  • Kleptomania: Kleptomania refers to the constant urge to, and failure to resist the urge to, steal. Many times the person with this disorder will steal items that aren't worth much or aren't needed.

  • Pathological Gambling: In pathological gambling, a person must experience at least five of the following symptoms: a preoccupation with gambling; a need to gamble with more and more money in order obtain a certain level of excitement; repeated efforts to stop or reduce gambling that are unsuccessful; feeling restless and irritable when trying to stop gambling; gambling in order to reduce distress or escape and forget about problems; continuing to gamble even when money is lost; lying to family members or other significant people so they don't know about your gambling; engaging in illegal acts to get money to gamble; losing a job, relationship, career, or similar opportunity because of gambling; and relying on others to help out with finances that have been negatively impacted by gambling. Similar to intermittent explosive disorder, studies have found a connection between PTSD and pathological gambling.

Finally, a person could be diagnosed with an impulse control disorder not otherwise specified. This diagnosis would be used for situations where a person engages in an impulsive behavior that isn't one of those described above.

Also Known As: Impulsive Behavior
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