The Connection Between Impulsive Behavior and Addiction

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

Dr. Norris Von Curl, II, MD

In a very real sense, the addict is the poster child for impulsive behavior, showing a reckless abandon for safety or legality in their pursuits of getting their fix, but not everyone agrees with this. Dr. Lance Dodes wrote an article for Psychology Today where he outlined why addictive behaviors cannot be classified as impulsive. Dr. Dodes writes, “Real impulsive behavior is immediate. It is simply stimulus-response, like a biological reflex: see it, do it.” While Dr. Dodes’ intentions seem to be positive, as he would like people to understand that addicts are not, “pleasure-seeking, weak, or unthoughtful”, his postulations, while interesting, do not take into account the fact that the compulsion, or impulse, to drink or drug often comes only after the introduction of the substance to someone’s body. What this means is that many times an addict or alcoholic will plan to just have one. They will go to the bar with the intention to just have a drink, but after that first drink the result is often an insatiable urge to drink 10 more, and this act is the mere definition of impulsive, as there is no forethought to the action. If you asked the alcoholic after why they drank 10 beers instead of just one, they often would not have an answer for you, as they themselves are not privy to why they acted impulsively, all they know is that once the substance is introduced to their body, they must have more until something stops them.

What is Impulsive Behavior?

Impulsive Behavior is defined as a “multifactorial construct that involves a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences.” Those in the throes of these behaviors usually have little to no recourse from stopping said behaviors, in fact by nature the behavior is uncontrollable. Those who suffer from addiction understand this better than most. Their families and friends may ask them, please just don’t drink too much tonight and the addict or alcoholic starts the night off with the best of intentions. At some point, impulsivity takes over and they cannot stop themselves from drinking to a stupor, baffling everyone including themselves.

Impulsivity in Addiction or Alcoholism

As baffling as the lack of impulse control is to the addict or alcoholic and those around them, a paper published in the Journal of Neuropsychiatry states that there are actually 5 stages to impulsivity. They are:

  1. Compelling urge or desire
  2. Failure to resist the urge
  3. A heightened sense of arousal
  4. Succumbing to the urge, resulting in relief
  5. Potential remorse or feelings of guilt after the behavior is completed

These 5 stages perfectly describe the daily life of the addict or alcoholic. They wake up in the morning with the best of intentions. Maybe the night before they said, “That’s it, I’m done, and I’m never going to use again.” At some point in the day, they start to have a compelling urge or desire, a compulsion, or impulse. They struggle with this if they have gotten to the point where they want to stop. They don’t want to use anymore, but they just can’t shake the obsession. They begin to feel agitated, or a heightened sense of arousal, which finally gives way to them succumbing to the urge. To anyone who has ever experienced this, they will notice that on their way to pick up their drugs or alcohol, they usually begin to experience relief, even before they ingest the substance. Finally, after the deed is done, they begin to feel guilty about what they did, chastising themselves for not being able to stop.

Sometimes the impulsivity is as clear as this, spread out over time, throughout the day, but other times all of this could take place in a matter of seconds. There have been a great many addicts who were attempting to get clean and sober who went to just hang out with their friends. Their friends started to smoke, it was passed to them, and next thing they knew they were high. The argument could be made that they actually went over there with the intention of using, otherwise, why would they go there, and for some this may be the case, but for others, it was pure impulsivity.

hand holding function of brain

Combatting Impulsivity Through the 12 Steps

Many people who have gotten sober describe how they were unable to not drink or drug before they got sober. They, like the individuals described above, would have the thought to use and then that is what would occur. These same individuals after working the steps describe how they have been given a pause, an ability to not instinctively act on their impulses and because of this they have the ability to think rationally when it comes to drinking or drugging. In the 2nd step, there is a reference to a returning to sanity. This sanity is a deliverance from the impulse to drink and drug. While many do not experience the ability to pause directly after completing this step, at some point while in the process of working the remaining steps, they will have gained this ability, while also having the desire to drink and drug removed. How all of this works, no one can really say for certain, but what is certain is that it does work, and this has been proven for over 75 years.

Drug and Alcohol Treatment for Your Impulsivity

If you are at the point where you no longer want to live your daily life going through the 5 stages of impulsivity and would like to obtain the pause necessary to not act out on your every whim, then call the professionals at First Steps Recovery today, at  1-844- 244-7837. Our trained staff is here to help you acquire the skills necessary to overcome the impulsive nature of drug and alcohol abuse, allowing you to get your life back. You no longer need to act out on behaviors that no longer serve your best interest and do nothing but hurt you. Call today and begin your road to recovery the right way.

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