Impulse Control Disorders and Their Role in Addiction

Treatment for Impulse ControlImpulse control disorder is a prime of example of how mental illness can compel an individual to act against his or her own interests. The disorder is characterized by an individual’s inability to resist powerful, often self-destructive temptations and urges.

Impulse control disorders are incredibly diverse, ranging from compulsions to go shopping to urges to burn property to the ground. Thankfully, the negative consequences of impulse control disorder can be tempered through treatment.

Pervasive misinformation about impulse control disorders has created barriers that prevent individuals from seeking treatment. The best way to eliminate these barriers is by sharing the truth about mental illness and how these medical conditions impede the lifestyle of those who are afflicted.

Keep reading to learn more about the most well-known impulse control disorders, their symptoms and how these conditions can be treated simultaneously with addiction and even other forms of mental illness.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is an impulse control disorder characterized by continuously high levels of physical and mental activity. This elevated activity makes it difficult for an individual with ADHD to stay focused on a particular task for an extended period of time. As a result, those with ADHD typically cycle between periods of inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.

Common symptoms of ADHD include:

  • Inability to follow a conversation
  • Inability to complete sustained tasks
  • Difficulty with organization
  • Tendency to squirm while sitting
  • Tendency to interrupt others
  • Nonstop talking

Compulsive Shopping

Compulsive shopping, also known as compulsive buying disorder, is described as an impulse control disorder marked by excessive shopping excursions. In particular, those struggling with compulsive buying disorder are unable to resist the urge to make new purchases, even when doing so places the individual’s finances in jeopardy. Surprisingly, income level is not an accurate predictor of individuals who are susceptible to compulsive buying disorder.

Symptoms of compulsive shopping include:

  • Compulsive purchases
  • Uncontrolled spending
  • Chronic shopping “binges”
  • Obsessing over sales
  • Shopping in response to strong emotions
  • Shopping in order to manage stress


Treating Impulse Control

Kleptomania, an impulse control disorder characterized by strong urges to steal items from others, is a particularly problematic mental illness. It is important to note that those with kleptomania do not steal for personal gain or out of ideological motivations. Instead, their mental illness spontaneously and unpredictably compels them to steal. The symptoms of kleptomania can easily be interpreted as malicious, reflecting the need for more awareness about kleptomania and its effects.

The symptoms of this impulse control disorder include:

  • Uncontrollable desire to shoplift
  • Feelings of anxiety or arousal while stealing
  • Sense of relief or gratification after a theft
  • Experiencing a cycle of urges, theft, and guilt
  • Absence of other impulse control disorders


Named for pyr, the Greek word for “fire,” pyromania is an impulse control disorder that revolves around setting objects or locations on fire. Like kleptomania, pyromania is distinct from criminal behavior because the act is carried out in order to relieve overwhelming urges, as opposed to acquiring money or other personal gains. However, those struggling with pyromania face can sometimes face serious legal consequences as a result of acting on their urges.

The following symptoms are common among those dealing with pyromania:

  • Poor stress management
  • Obsession with fire
  • Difficulty making friends
  • Suicidal idealizations
  • Depression
  • Chronic fire setting

Sex Compulsion

Compulsive sexual behavior describes an obsession with sexual thoughts and behaviors that negatively impact an individual’s finances, relationships and career. In some cases, urges generated by this impulse control disorder are satisfied through a commonplace sexual activity like self-stimulation.

In other cases, compulsive sexual behaviors are more extreme, such as infidelity or paying for sex. Regardless of the type of sexual behavior, mental illness is characterized by uncontrollable urges to engage in specific sexual activities.

Symptoms of compulsive sexual behavior include:

  • Uncontrollable sexual urges
  • Unfulfilling sexual activity
  • Deteriorating interpersonal relationships
  • Consequences at work or school for sexual behavior
  • Risky sexual activity
  • Desire to conceal sexual behaviors


Trichotillomania often referred to as a hair-pulling disorder, is a mental illness that is commonly associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder. A hair-pulling disorder is characterized by an obsessive urge to pluck hair from one’s body. These urges are uncontrollable to the point of causing major distress in individuals diagnosed with a mental illness. Typically, hair is removed from the scalp or around the eyes, leaving large patches that individuals must work to hide in social settings.

Common symptoms of trichotillomania include:

  • Strong urges to pull out hair
  • Sense of relief after pulling out hair
  • Chewing or playing with pulled-out hair
  • Other hair pulling rituals
  • Debilitating anxiety related to hair loss
  • Visible hair loss

The Connection Between Impulse Control Disorders and Addiction

Impulse control disorders pose a much greater risk to the individual when they are accompanied by a co-occurring addiction to drugs or alcohol. Substance use disorder is an equally serious mental illness. Even worse, the emotional issues that are central to an impulse control disorder may also be fueling an individual’s addiction. This complex overlap of mental disorders makes both problems even more difficult to treat.

That’s why it makes sense for individuals dealing with a dual diagnosis to seek treatment for both issues at once. At The Treatment Center by The Recovery Village, our board-certified staff of physicians and psychiatrists are highly qualified to address the unique concerns of those with impulse control disorders and substance abuse issues. You can reach our admissions counselors 24/7 at (866) 295-6003 for more information.

Suffering from an Impulse Control Disorder and Addiction? Learn About The Treatment Center by The Recovery Village’s Dual Diagnosis Program:

Read About Dual Diagnosis Treatment