The Relationship Between Impulsivity and Addiction
There is a lot of misinformation out in the world about substance use disorders, especially when it comes to addiction and impulsivity. These two conditions often trigger each other and aggravate similar behaviors and challenges. Contrary to popular belief, both addiction and impulsivity can be professionally treated and managed with evidence-based techniques.
Commonplace Addictions and Impulses
What is the causal relationship between addiction and impulsivity? Are addictions just another type of impulsive behavior? Don’t we all engage in some impulsive behaviors during our daily lives? We certainly do, because behavioral addictions include shopping, gaming, gambling, binge eating, and risk-taking. Most of us struggle to focus, stay offline, and minimize our use of social media. The stress of work, school, family, relationships, and life in general drives many of us to escape through alcohol, nicotine, illicit drugs, video games, and shopping online. Most Americans don’t realize that they are surrounded by friends, coworkers, and neighbors who may have some type of addiction. For example, 2 million Americans are addicted to opioid pain relievers, and 20 million struggle with problem gambling.
Why Addictions Occur
Most substance use disorders (SUDs) begin through casual experimentation that develops into an uncontrollable addiction. This is because illicit substances cause neurological changes in the brain that rewire our circuitry. The brain’s reward center triggers dopamine release, which creates the positive feelings that everyone craves. In order to avoid the negative aftereffects of substance use, such as withdrawal, many clients must continue using.
On the other hand, many people want to avoid trauma and negative feelings. The self-medication hypothesis teaches us that SUDs are often the result of clients attempting to manage their stress and improve their functioning by using drugs. So, some addictions occur because some people want to experience euphoria, while others occur because clients are trying to ease their pain in an unsustainable way.
Substance use disorders are a more serious type of escapism and avoidance. Addiction and impulsivity are comorbid conditions that often manifest together. SUDs are usually accompanied by other mental or physical health challenges that may have existed before the substance use began. Often, they are triggered as a result of the disorder itself. These conditions include insomnia, anxiety, depression, mood swings, and volatile emotions. Clients may struggle with focusing, remembering, and making decisions. Clients who experience these issues will naturally attempt to self-regulate and may end up stuck in a negative cycle. Once clients become fully addicted to a substance, their neurological cravings overwhelm their willpower, self-control, and rational decision-making.
Addictions vs. Impulsivity
Research by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) shows that higher impulsivity is actually a distincttrait of certain severe SUDs. The researchers recommend that impulsivity be identified to help select the best treatment solutions for clients. Substance use disorders may increase impulsivity, which in turn contributes to the continual use of substances. If a client keeps using a substance to manage their anxiety, this may create more anxiety that they may manage by using more of the substance.
But what exactly is impulsivity? When someone commits an impulsive act, they’re living totally in the moment and ignore the risks and consequences of their actions. Clients who experience substance use disorders may escalate in risk-taking and ignore the severity of consequences, so prompt and proper interventions are needed.
We Are All Impulsive
We all act impulsively sometimes. We may decide to call in sick and go out with friends for a much-needed mental health day. We may stop for fast food on the way home instead of waiting for dinner. Impulsivity may begin with a single, spontaneous choice for immediate gratification instead of a delayed reward. Then, it may change into regular choices that become habits that contribute to poor life choices. This could be something like calling in sick and breaking our diet plan every week. Addictions and substance use hijack our systems of rational thinking and logical maturity. A lack of self-control and a pattern of impulsivity strengthen addictions and require professional intervention.
Addictions Increase Impulsivity
Impulsive behavior goes hand in hand with the warning signs of all behavioral addictions and substance use disorders, which include:
• Deteriorating relationships with family members and friends
• Conflict at work because of tardiness, absenteeism, and poor performance
• Financial issues that include borrowing, stealing, or mismanaging money
• Mood swings that go from irritable and aggressive to lethargic and depressed
• Physical symptoms, such as insomnia, headaches, and stomach aches
• Personality symptoms like being unreliable, avoidant, and manipulative
Fortunately, there are therapies to help clients overcome all these challenges, and they are quite common in the therapy world. According to the American Psychology Association (APA), cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a proven way to treat behavioral and substance use disorders.
Causes of Substance Use Disorder and Addiction Behavior
The root causes of addiction include biological, cognitive, social, and psychological variables. Our genes, family medical history, and preexisting health conditions and mental disorders may increase the risk of developing a substance use disorder. Socio-economic status, quality of life, parental involvement, peer pressure, and childhood abuse are all risk factors.
One groundbreaking study in the 1970s found that social isolation was the key variable in addiction and substance use in animals. We cannot place the blame on clients. Substance use disorders have a deep socio-psychological and neurological basis that contributes to both impulsive and eventually compulsive behaviors.
The Stages of Impulsivity
Addictions and impulsivity occur in repeating stages that are well-documented. There are four stages of impulsive behavior that make up the Impulse Control Disorder Cycle. The stages include tension, impulsive acts, relief/pleasure, and guilt/regret. For example, while driving home from work, you experienced the tension of hunger, so you decided to grab a quick bite to eat. You impulsively entered the closest drive-through to get some hot and delicious fast food. Then, you realize you ordered way too much; it’s the third time this week, and your spouse is waiting at home with a romantic dinner. The guilt that you feel will add to the tension that got you there in the first place.
The Stages of Compulsivity
You don’t have to be diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to go through the stages of compulsivity. Anyone who has ever felt anxious and sought relief through a phone, video, or computer game has acted compulsively. It’s no surprise that most clients also experience the Compulsive Disorder Cycle. This includes experiencing stress and anxiety, resorting to repetitive behaviors, enjoying relief, and experiencing obsessions afterward. When there are biochemical changes in the brain from a substance use disorder, people can end up becoming hardwired to act uncontrollably. Fortunately, therapy and professional treatment can help clients learn to manage their symptoms.
Treatment professionals use nationally recognized programs and techniques grounded in science to heal and treat substance use disorders. The most popular programs involve the 12 steps that are used by recovery centers, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) to help their clients heal and regain control of their lives. The steps are a sequence of actions and commitments that clients make to empower themselves to change. For example, while advancing through the steps, clients admit helplessness, perform a deep introspection of the self, and make amends to those they have wronged. A 12-step program works best when coupled with psychotherapy, such as CBT or grief counseling, and can be combined with medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
CBT is a treatment approach that uses proven concepts and techniques that help clients change their thought patterns and free themselves from automatic actions. CBT focuses on how our thought patterns, reactive attitudes, unconscious programming, and deeply held beliefs influence decisions, feelings, and behaviors. There are standard cognitive distortions that worsen impulsivity and addiction. Filtering is when we focus on negative things while ignoring positive things. Polarized thinking is having a rigid view of right and wrong and success and failure. So if a client temporarily relapses, they may mistakenly focus on only the negative and consider their years of sobriety a complete failure. Other cognitive distortions include overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, personalizing, and labeling.
Medication-assisted Treatment (MAT)
Medication-assisted treatment involves professionals using FDA-approved medicine to help clients overcome their substance use disorders. MAT is an important tool because many clients experience some type of withdrawal discomfort, and medication helps to reduce this. Medications help the client’s brain and neurological system function normally while they participate in therapeutic groups and treatment options. MAT creates a psychological window of opportunity for clients to regain control and resolve their issues. MAT promotes detoxification while minimizing cravings. Of course, MAT works best when paired with counseling, behavior therapy, and holistic treatment. Relying solely on medication is not effective because clients must be professionally guided to identify the root causes of their addiction and dependency.
Other treatment programs available for SUDs include inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization, and residential treatment problems. If you or someone you know needs professional help overcoming a substance use disorder, reach out to our professionals at Granite Recovery Centers