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Compulsive vs. Impulsive Behaviors

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Substance abuse impacts the way your loved one thinks and behaves. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse1, an addiction to drugs or alcohol refers to an urge to abuse a substance that a loved one cannot control.

Generally, a loved one shows compulsive drug-seeking behavior and symptoms when he develops an addiction; however, initial substance abuse might stem from impulsive behaviors rather than a compulsion. Recognizing the differences between these behaviors helps determine the best solution to help a loved one with their substance abuse.

What is Impulsive Behavior?

West Virginia University2 says that impulsive behavior occurs when an individual acts without thinking. Essentially, a loved one engages in a behavior before he thinks about the potential consequences of the action. According to West Virginia University2, impulsive behavior does cause long-term consequences in certain situations. For example, drinking alcohol and then driving a car increases the risk of a serious accident or getting a DUI charge from the police.

Even if a loved one does not show signs of an addiction, their impulsive behavior causes concerns for the family and increases the risk of an addiction in certain situations. By addressing substance abuse before it causes the compulsive behavior, a loved one avoids chemical dependency and prevents compulsive drug-seeking behaviors.

What is Compulsive Behavior?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine3 calls an addiction a chronic disease of the brain’s reward or motivation circuitry. Essentially, an addiction develops after a loved one abuses a substance by flooding the system with reward or motivation hormones.

During an addiction, a loved one acts out in a compulsive manner rather than an impulsive manner. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary4 calls a compulsion a pressure that makes an individual act in a certain way. The pressure forces a loved one to engage in a behavior and he cannot prevent the action through will-power alone. A loved one often thinks about the action or behavior long before he actually engages in the action. It is not an impulsive and spur-of-the-moment behavior.

See also  How Addiction Develops

Developing an Addiction

Addiction develops over time as a loved one continually engages in the behavior. In some cases, the addiction develops quickly due to changes in the brain and a high rate of different risk factors. The National Institute on Drug Abuse5 says that the drugs over-stimulate the brain’s natural reward system and cause a “high” or an extreme sense of pleasure.
In many cases, substance abuse starts as impulsive behavior. Factors that cause initial drug abuse include:

  • Curiosity
  • Attempts to self-medicate for mental health conditions or trauma
  • Peer Pressure
  • Challenges with personal relationships
  • Experimentation

Impulsive drug abuse means that a loved one takes the substance without thinking about the potential consequences, but doesn’t abuse the substance due to an urge that he cannot resist.

The Transition From Impulsive to Compulsive Behavior

As a loved one abuses drugs or alcohol, he develops a tolerance and chemical dependency. Over time, the behavior shifts to compulsive and a loved one’s attempts to avoid the drug result in failure. Compulsive behavior occurs when a loved one obsessively thinks about the drug and feels an overwhelming need to take the substance.

Substance abuse often starts with impulsive behaviors, but the action changes over time as a loved one develops an addiction and shows signs of compulsive drug-seeking behaviors. Drugs and alcohol change the way that your loved one thinks and behaves. A professional program, like those provided by Destination Hope, will address the compulsive actions that contribute to an addiction.


  1. What is Addiction, The National Institute on Drug Abuse,
  2. Dealing with Impulsive Behavior, The West Virginia University, February 5, 2015,
  3. Definition of Addiction, The American Society of Addiction Medicine, April 19, 2011,
  4. Compulsion, Merriam-Webster Dictionary,
  5. DrugFacts: Brain and Addiction, The National Institute on Drug Abuse, May 7, 2015,
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