5 Impulse Control Disorders

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated May 21, 2020

Impulse control disorders are mental illnesses that are characterized by the patient having issues resisting strong urges to do certain tasks. People who suffer from this problem will regularly and repeatedly perform such tasks regardless of negative outcomes. They may do this to relieve pressure or to feel pleasure. This will vary from person to person.

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There is little research on what causes impulse control disorders, but some theories state growing up in chaotic environment, having a close friend or family member who struggles with substance abuse or having a structural or chemical imbalance in the brain may cause these problems.

Among all impulse control disorders, symptoms vary, but there are some similarities among them. These include obsessive and intense thoughts, extreme impatience, anxiety before completing a compulsion and inability to resist urges. These symptoms are considered excessive and ultimately a threat to oneself or others.

Unbeknownst to many, these issues are relatively common among children, adolescents and adults. If you are struggling with impulse control disorders, treatment is possible through pharmacology and therapy.


Kleptomania is the inability to refrain from stealing. A person who struggles with this disorder does so without regard to need or profit and will also disregard any negative ramifications. This disorder affects people from many different age groups and can onset as early as childhood and all the way up to adult years.

It is not known what causes Kleptomania, although it has been found that those who are diagnosed with this disorder often have other underlying mental health diagnoses such as bipolar disorder or depression. Some professionals also argue that this disorder is a subsection of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, since many people who struggle with Kleptomania describe the urges as unwanted intrusive thoughts.

When a Kleptomaniac steals an item, they often report shame and regret after doing the deed. Since the items they steal have nothing to do with want or value, they often throw or give them away.

Treatment for Kleptomania can be in a group or one-on-one setting. Since the nature of the disorder includes underlying issues, therapists will often aim their efforts at resolving those problems first. Normally, once the underlying mental problems are resolved, the Kleptomania is resolved as well or at least greatly reduced to the point where it can be resisted.


Pyromania is described as the incessant urge to start fires. Before starting a fire, a person who has Pyromania will feel an intense emotional desire to do so along with a great surge of anxiety or another emotional overload that pushes them to perform this act.

Pyromania does not discriminate based on age. This disorder affects those young and old. It is more common in males than females, but there is still a large percentage of females that struggle with this problem. Additionally, it has been found that many people who have Pyromania also have learning disabilities or lack of social skills.

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At the onset of Pyromania, many people do not jump straight to setting large fires. This may begin with burning holes in carpets or other household linens and slowly works its way up to the more serious things. Some other early signs of Pyromania include possession of an excessive number of lighters or matches and burning paper or other small objects above a sink or trashcan.

Pyromaniacs do not set fires for monetary or social gain, political stance or revenge purposes. The act of starting fires is directly related to the internal impulse and urge to do so. In order to be considered a Pyromaniac, a person must also not set fires due to a delusion or other impairment.

Since the nature of pyromania is so dangerous and carries a high risk for death or injury, if you think you or someone you know may be affected, help should be sought out immediately. This is a progressive disorder that does not resolve on its own and often continues to get worse when left untreated or ignored.

It is also important that anyone who struggles with Pyromania take a fire safety course. It has also been suggested that contact with families who are victims of fire can leave a positive impact on a person with Pyromania.

Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Intermittent Explosive Disorder is characterized by an overwhelming urge to act on aggressive impulses. Some of these impulses may include engaging in physical or verbal assault, damage or destruction of property or frequent temper tantrums.

Most notably, the reaction of a person with Intermittent Explosive Disorder will not be fitting for the situation. A person who experiences these outbursts will describe them as "spells" or "attacks" because immediately before the outburst, there will be a large burst of anxiety followed by immediate relief once the deed is completed.

These actions are not pre-meditated and are generally brief, lasting less than 30 minutes. Later, the person suffering often feels remorse or embarrassment surrounding their actions.

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Additionally, alcohol or other decision-inhibiting substances are well known for causing the symptoms of this disorder to become worse. Any person who believes he has intermittent explosive disorder is strongly discouraged from using these as a result. Alcohol even in moderation is an extreme trigger and should be avoided at all costs.

This disorder normally begins during late childhood or adolescence, mostly affecting males, and is another example of an impulse control disorder that does not get better or go away on its own. In fact, it is known to be followed by other mental illnesses such as depression and severe anxiety. This is thought to be as a result of the consistent negative emotions the disorder brings to a person suffering from it.

In the world of treatment of Intermittent Explosive Disorder, psychotherapy along with behavioral modification techniques have shown great success in curbing outbursts. There may also be a need to treat any other underlying diseases such as depression or anxiety in addition to this.


Trichotillomania is an impulse control disorder, which involves pulling of the hair. It most commonly occurs in females and most frequently involves pulling hair from the scalp, eyebrows and eyelids.

There are no known causes of trichotillomania, but it is thought that traumatic events in childhood may be a factor that brings it on. Typically, symptoms will display between the ages of nine to eleven and peak around age thirteen. This disorder is a common source for anxiety and embarrassment and the effects on a child has the ability to last a lifetime.

Much like the other disorders, the problem starts with a strong urge to pull hair. Anxiety builds all the way up to the point of execution and is immediately relieved when the action is sought out. Soon thereafter, many patients report feelings of shame and regret as a result.

Trichotillomania is often grouped together with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder because of its compulsive nature. Additionally, it has been observed to run in the same circle as depression. It is known to be a reoccurring disease that will reappear all throughout a person's life when left untreated. The period of time that makes itself known can range from weeks, months and even years and is dependent much of the time on the sufferer's mental state at the time of infliction.

The most effective treatment options include a combination of medication and therapy. Many of the same medications that are used to treat Obsessive Compulsive Disorder are helpful in treating trichotillomania because of the similarities between the two disorders.

Conduct Disorder

Conduct disorder is composed of behavior that repeatedly and frequently breaks social rules. This disorder is only diagnosed for children and youth up to age eighteen.

Some examples of negative behavior that may be displayed as a result of this disorder are bullying or fighting, intentionally damaging or destroying other people's belongings, stealing, lying and breaking rules set for them by authority figures. This can range from disobeying household rules to skipping school among other things,

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Since these behaviors have a significantly negative impact to the people around the child, this disorder causes severe issues in school and other social situations. Even though the actions are obvious, children and youth who struggle with conduct disorder will often downplay or ignore it altogether.

Early treatment is imperative to the child to ensure a happy school and home life as well as preventing the problem into adulthood. Similarly, to the other impulse control disorders, action must be taken if a positive result is expected. This isn't something a child will simply grow out of or stop doing.

If allowed to go into adulthood, this disorder often progresses into what is called antisocial personality disorder. This is similar to conduct disorder except it consists of lack of regard for other's feelings or social norms. It can make it difficult for adults to get and keep jobs and to stay out of legal trouble.

Therapy has been widely successful at treating conduct disorder and the earlier you take action the better.

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