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How Impulse Control Fits into Addiction Recovery

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Once we’re on the path towards recovery, we’re able to start learning of the many ways addiction affects our mind, body and spirit. When addiction is active, we’re more likely to say and do things that we wouldn’t otherwise do when we’re sober. For example, we may lie to loved ones about our substance abuse, we may skip getting together with friends who don’t use, or we may become angry if we’re unable to drink or use drugs for a brief period of time. Addiction, in a sense, can hold a strong power over us – one that’s hard to break free from – and that’s why it’s important that we go through detoxification as well as learn techniques for managing withdrawals.

What is Impulse Control?

Impulse control is the ability to control a person’s urges – but those with impulse control disorders experience difficulty holding back from a feeling of tension that builds up prior to acting out on it. An impulse could be towards a number of things – gambling, substance abuse, sexual gratification and much more; in 2015, The Fix, a website that publishes information related to both addiction and recovery, explained that impulse control issues tend to go hand in hand with substance use disorders (SUDs). They stated,

“One has to fight the initial urge to drink and do drugs in the first place. Then once you get clean, the impulse to pick up again is going to come up, again and again.”

There’s often the argument that those with addiction have a “lack of willpower,” and a lack of impulse control could seem, on the surface, just like this. It’s important to note, however, that impulse control has much more to do with a person’s brain chemistry – and while a person is partly responsible for becoming involved with substance use in the first place, it’s their brain chemistry that make them incredibly more susceptible to abusing substances when they may otherwise have not done so.

For example, a study published in the journal World Psychiatry explained that those with “behavioral addictions” – such as gambling – have abnormalities in the reward processing center of their brain. Furthermore, the study emphasized that there are genetic similarities between those with behavioral addictions versus those with SUDs, which only further supports the idea that addiction isn’t reliant upon a “character flaw” – but the commonly asked question of whether or not impulse control comes before addiction is still quite complex.

The Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior denoted a study that was previously conducted in England; researchers assessed 50 pairs of siblings, with one person in each pair addicted to cocaine and the other showing no history of drug abuse. Brain scans were conducted on all the participants, and researchers found that different sensory mechanisms appeared between siblings’ emotional center and control center in the brain.

Identifying Issues with Impulse Control

There are three main ways that impulse control appears in individuals:

Behavioral symptoms: such as lying, stealing, becoming aggressive, etc.

Social and emotional symptoms: socially isolating oneself, low self-esteem, experiencing drastic shifts in mood, guilt or regret, etc.

Cognitive symptoms: obsessive behaviors, irritability, suddenly entering into rage, difficulty concentrating, etc.

For those with impulse control issues, tension builds up until they feel they can’t resist the urge to act any longer – and once they become angry, use substances, dive into depression or something similar, they experience a brief period of relief. The difficult aspect of impulse, however, is that it comes back – and for those who feel the urge, addiction can easily develop if certain precautions aren’t taken.

According to Very Well Mind, a website that publishes information related to disorders, self-improvement, and psychology, there are quite a few risk factors that can make a person more susceptible to developing an impulse control disorder:

  •    Being male
  •    Having a genetic predisposition towards any type of impulse control issue
  •    Having experienced trauma, abuse or neglect
  •    Exposure to violence or aggression

Furthermore, mental health issues – such as those with depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and others may certainly increase a person’s chances of having impulse control concerns.

Recovery & Impulse Control

Impulse control is something that can be worked on over time as a person develops more strategies for managing the urges they experience on a day-to-day basis. Relapse prevention, for example, is a common part of addiction recovery – and it addresses topics like impulse control as a way to help clients find newer and more productive ways to relate to their thoughts and feelings. In many instances, there are people, places and actions that can help a person slow down their thought processes before they act in a way that could otherwise set them back in recovery.

If you’re ready to begin your journey towards healing and restoration, speak with a professional from the Burning Tree today. It’s never too late to seek the help you need.

Burning Tree Ranch specializes in treating chronic relapse in people with chemical dependency. We provide long-term support through residential and extended care programs that help our clients break their old patterns of addiction and learn new skills to support a healthier life. Our Dallas residential treatment program is focused on providing premium substance use treatment at an affordable cost. Contact us today for more information.


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