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What is the Connection Between Impulsive Behaviors and Addiction?

According to the National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, in 2020, there were 37.309 million illegal drug users in the United States, which highlights addiction and substance abuse as common issues.[1] Those who suffer from substance use disorders appear to misuse drugs and alcohol without considering the consequences, and this behavior can be attributed to impulsive behavior. 

While addiction can cause impulsivity, it is common for impulsive behaviors to precede substance abuse. Knowing the connection between impulsive behaviors and substance misuse can help you better understand the disease of addiction. 

What is Impulsive Behavior?

Impulsive behaviors are actions taken without considering the consequences. If you engage in impulsive behavior, that means you are not thinking about anything outside of that exact moment. While everyone engages in impulsivity at some point in their lives, others suffer from frequent episodes of the behavior. 

While impulsive behavior seems to happen out of nowhere, it occurs in stages. These stages include:

  • Feeling a compelling urge or desire to do something
  • Being unable to resist the urge 
  • Experiencing arousal or euphoria at the thought of engaging in the behavior
  • Acting out the urge and experiencing temporary relief
  • Feeling guilty for engaging in the behavior afterward

If you take a close look at the stages of impulsive behaviors, you will find that they are extremely similar to the way individuals suffering from addiction engage in substance abuse. This is because addiction causes impulsive substance abuse.

Other examples of impulsive behaviors include:

  • Overindulging in eating, gambling, shopping, or substances (binging)
  • Destroying your own or someone else’s property 
  • Making minor situations into something bigger and more important 
  • Losing control over your emotions when it is inappropriate 
  • Starting over frequently, such as joining new friend groups, moving far away, or changing jobs without being prompted for a clear reason
  • Talking about intimate subjects without thinking beforehand
  • Engaging in sex without thinking about the consequences in a risky manner 
  • Becoming physically violent when you cannot control your anger 
  • Hurting yourself on purpose when you experience strong, negative emotions

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine, “impulsivity is defined in terms of an aspect of disinhibition, and considered as an immediate reaction to stimuli, unplanned reaction on the spur of the moment or with no regard for its consequences, problem in programming or adhering to programs, sense of urgency and self-harming behavior in the time of emotional turmoil.”[2]

What Causes Impulsive Behaviors?

There are a variety of things that can lead to impulsive behavior. Children have a propensity to engage in impulsivity because their brains are not fully developed, causing them to lack the ability to think about consequences ahead of time. However, this affects some adults as well. 

Impulsive behaviors can be caused by a specific personality type, brain functioning, and brain connectivity. While not everyone who suffers from impulsivity has a mental health condition, it is more common in people diagnosed with mental illnesses.

Risk factors for impulsive behaviors include:[2]

  • Genetics
  • Environment 
  • Brain function
  • Brain injuries 
  • Physical changes to the brain
  • Childhood trauma 
  • Mental health conditions like borderline personality disorder, bipolar disorder, ADHD, and more

How is Impulsivity Connected to Addiction?

Impulsivity is connected to addiction in two main ways. On one hand, susceptibility to impulsive behavior can cause addiction, while substance abuse can lead to impulsive behaviors. Substance abuse can cause damage to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for rationality, logic, and making sound decisions. This damage can weaken emotional responses, making individuals more prone to impulsivity. Additionally, substance abuse can diminish the serotonin in the brain, a chemical that helps individuals remain patient.[3]

When you already struggle with impulsivity, you are more likely to develop an addiction. For example, let’s say you suffer from bipolar disorder which causes you to behave impulsively. Studies have shown that about 60% of people with this condition have a history of substance abuse, which proves that impulsivity is a huge risk factor for addiction.[4]

If you develop a substance use disorder and have a history of behaving impulsively, your addiction is likely to be more severe than others. Impulsivity feeds addiction like gasoline to a fire. Because abusing substances causes you to experience immediate feelings of pleasure and reward, being impulsive means that you are more likely to engage in compulsive drug abuse.

Signs You Require Dual Diagnosis Treatment

If you struggled with impulsivity before you developed an addiction, you could have an underlying mental health condition. It is important to consider this, as the treatment for addiction becomes complicated when you struggle with a co-occurring disorder. If you have co-occurring disorders your substance abuse and mental illness must be treated simultaneously, otherwise, you are at an increased risk of relapsing later on. 

The general signs of co-occurring mental illness and addiction include:

  • Using substances to cope with uncomfortable emotions like anger or sadness
  • Extreme changes in personality 
  • Rapid shifts in mood 
  • Social withdrawal or abandoning previously enjoyed activities 
  • Erratic or uncharacteristic behavior 
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits 
  • Significant weight loss or gain not associated with a diet 
  • Extreme anxiety or panic attacks 
  • Hostility towards others 
  • Self-esteem issues or self-hatred 
  • Depression, self-harm, or suicidal thoughts 
  • Symptoms of psychosis such as hallucinations, delusions, or being detached from reality 
  • Being unable to control your drug or alcohol use 
  • Needing more of a substance to experience a desired effect 
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you cannot use drugs or alcohol 

It is important to note that every mental health condition can co-occur with addiction. As a result, the symptoms of co-occurring disorders mentioned above are not all-encompassing. If you or a loved one experience poor mental health and substance abuse at the same time, you should consider attending a dual-diagnosis treatment program.

Find Help for Impulsivity and Addiction

If you or a loved one displays impulsive behavior and suffer from substance abuse issues, you should consider seeking professional help. Impulsivity and addiction fuel one another, which means you are more likely to experience the severe effects of substance abuse like overdoses and long-term health conditions. 

Thankfully, treatment programs like Mandala Healing Center can provide you with the support and treatments you need to recover from impulsivity and addiction. Contact us today for more information on our addiction treatment programs.