Signs & Symptoms of Impulse Control

Learn more about the causes, symptoms, and effects of impulse control disorder. Understanding what you or your loved one is going through can be the first step to getting help.

Understanding Impulse Control Disorder

Learn about impulse control disorder

Characterized by the consistent inability to stop performing certain actions that are harmful to either oneself or others, impulse control disorders are a collection of mental health disorders that can negatively affect children and adults alike. The chronic and intrusive symptoms associated with impulse control disorders often prompt a number of emotional and behavioral disturbances that can result in various harmful consequences. Furthermore, those individuals who struggle with an impulse control disorder do not possess the skills needed to manage their behavior and emotions, which can lead to significant difficulty in a number of areas of their lives. Some of the most commonly known impulse control disorders include kleptomania, intermittent explosive disorder, pyromania, and compulsive sexual behavior. Most often these disorders begin in childhood or adolescence and the severity of the symptoms tend to increase over time.

Treatment for impulsive control disorders is going to depend heavily on the exact disorder an individual has been diagnosed with but, ultimately, the overarching goal is to control symptoms. Adolescents or adults who are displaying signs of an impulse control disorder should seek professional help as soon as possible in order to prevent the development of more serious issues further on down the road.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for impulse control disorder

The development of impulse control disorders can be traced back to several different factors, including genetic, physical, and environmental causes. Listed below are the most common causes and the explanation for their role in the development of these disorders:

Genetic: Just as it is for many other mental health disorders, research has concluded that there is, in fact, a genetic link to the development of impulse control disorders. This means that if an individual has a family history of impulse control disorders, he or she is at a higher risk for developing one of these conditions.

Physical: Multiple neuroimaging studies that have been conducted throughout the years have come to the conclusion that those who exhibit symptoms indicative of impulse control disorder have structural differences in their brains when compared to others. These structural differences can cause certain neurochemicals, which are responsible for controlling one’s impulses, to not function as they should, possibly leading to the development of an impulse control disorder.

Environmental: The environment is an extremely influential factor in one’s life and can play a large role in the development of an impulse control disorder. For example, those who are exposed to violence or are, themselves, the victims of abuse run a greater risk for developing an impulse control disorder.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Being of a younger age
  • Having a preexisting mental illness
  • Family history of mental illness
  • Personal or family history of substance abuse and addiction
  • Chronic exposure to violence and aggression
  • Being the subject of some form of abuse or neglect

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of impulse control disorder

The symptoms displayed by an individual who is struggling with an impulse control disorder are going to be determined by the actual type of impulse control disorder that is present. The following are a list of some of the most common signs and symptoms that may indicate the presence of an impulse control disorder:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Starting fires
  • Episodes of explosive anger
  • Participating in risky sexual behaviors
  • Acting out aggressively or violently against people, animals, objects, and/or property
  • Stealing
  • Consistent lying

Physical symptoms:

  • Multiple scars or bruises
  • Burn marks as the result of playing with fire
  • Presence of sexually-transmitted diseases from participation in risky sexual behaviors

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Unable to control impulses
  • Intrusive ideas
  • Poor concentration
  • Unable to remain patient
  • Obsessive thought patterns
  • Compulsive thought patterns

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Agitation
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Low self-esteem
  • Isolation from family and friends
  • Lowered feelings of self-worth
  • Episodes of emotional detachment


Effects of impulse control disorder

The long-term effects that can arise as the result of untreated impulse control disorders can leave a lasting impact on an individual’s life. Below are some possible negative outcomes that individuals can possibly experience should they not get the proper treatment they need:

  • Incarceration
  • Lengthy hospitalization stays
  • Difficulty with interpersonal relationships
  • Engagement in self-harming behaviors
  • Consistently decreasing feelings of self-worth
  • Decline in academic or work performance
  • Suspension or expulsion from school
  • Conflict within the family
  • Financial difficulties

Co-Occurring Disorders

Impulse control disorder and co-occurring disorders

It is not uncommon for an individual with an impulse control disorder to meet the diagnostic criteria for another mental health condition. In some cases, an impulse control disorder may even trigger the onset of symptoms of another mental illness. Some of the most common co-occurring disorders include:

  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Conduct disorder

Even though I was scared to get help for my anxiety, deciding to go to San Juan Capestrano Hospital was the best decision I made for my health.

– Sofia H.