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Compulsivity vs. Impulsivity: What’s the Difference?

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Compulsive and impulsive behaviors can contribute to poor decision making when struggling with mental health and substance abuse

Impulsivity and compulsivity get a bad rap, but at their roots, they are vital to brain functions and essential for human survival. They help the human brain handle challenges in a healthy state of mind. Though different, impulsivity and compulsivity can become problematic when they go into overdrive. This can result in issues like obsessive-compulsive disorder, body dysmorphic disorder, kleptomania, and disorders that revolve around impulse control – gambling addiction and substance use disorder are two common examples.

At a distance, compulsive and impulsive behaviors may seem strikingly similar. Both are distinctive behavior patterns triggered by specific brain mechanisms that sometimes result in unfavorable conditions. A large body of evidence shows that increased impulsivity and compulsivity correlate with substance use disorders and addictions. Studies have also shown that impulsivity and compulsivity significantly correlate with lower quality of life.

However, the two are quite different, standing on opposite ends of a spectrum of undesired behaviors.

Compulsive Behaviors

Oxford Dictionary defines the root word compulsion as “an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one’s conscious wishes.” Compulsive behaviors are performed repeatedly to serve a particular purpose, although that purpose may not be directly related to the behavior and may even result in undesirable consequences. Compulsivity is more habitual than impulsivity because it involves repetitive behaviors that must be performed within a particular structure or set of rules.

For example, a person who has a history of disordered eating has a compulsion to binge on unhealthy foods after a day of feeling low or a rejection by a friend. Once the binge has concluded, the individual feels shame because it took place.

A compulsion often serves as an ineffective solution to a problem or discomfort. Compulsive behaviors can be connected to whatever cognitive issue they are designed to soothe or be completely unrelated, meaningless, and illogical. A person is compelled to behave this way, even if they know the behavior is inappropriate or useless at meeting the need.

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Impulsive Behaviors

Impulsivity can be defined as “actions that are poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unduly risky, or inappropriate to the situation and that often result in undesirable outcomes,” or, in other words, leaping before you look. Impulsive behaviors are usually those executed without premeditation or advanced thought. We act first and perhaps, think about the consequences of those actions later–usually when it’s too late. While impulsivity is typically unplanned, this is not always the case. People with substance use disorder can have an added aspect of planning that accompanies their impulsivity. Again, this behavior, like compulsive behavior, may lead to undesirable results.

Here’s an example of impulsive behavior: a group of friends is drinking and partying when someone suggests the group go to a different bar. One of the group members, who has been drinking excessively, jumps at the opportunity to drive everyone else, resulting in a car accident.

In the above example, the driver is given the impulse to drive at someone else’s suggestion. However, he does not think through the decision beforehand.

Compulsivity vs. Impulsivity in Relation to Substance Abuse

Individuals displaying compulsive behaviors often do so due to an inflated sense of danger from the world around them. Engagement in their compulsions typically provides some brief relief from the anxiety caused by those fears. Over time, an addiction develops. Addicts experience cravings for drugs that compel them to use, and the behavior itself begins to serve a purpose for them mentally and emotionally.

On the other end of the compulsivity-impulsivity line, individuals with impulsive tendencies tend to underestimate the potential negative consequences. That lack of consideration leads to engaging in behaviors that can be risky. Impulsive behaviors can arise due to an existing addiction. A gambling addict may impulsively develop a drinking habit when at the casino. Other impulsive behaviors may take place due to the addiction.

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The area in a Venn diagram where these two behaviors meet can be described as behaviors generated when an individual’s ability to control or delay impulses is dysfunctional. Substance use disorder is common amongst people on both ends of the spectrum. People with dysfunctional impulse control may use drinks and drugs because they do not consider the potential ramifications of their use. People with compulsivity issues may drink or take drugs as a coping mechanism to quiet their brain and the anxieties that generate their compulsive behaviors. Both sides of substance use can lead to disordered use and other addiction problems.

There are solutions if you are concerned that either compulsive or impulsive behaviors make it difficult for you to stop using drugs or alcohol. Destination Hope assists men and women who struggle with substance abuse. The individualized treatment at Destination Hope will help you control undesirable behaviors that may hinder your recovery. Importantly, Destination Hope offers dual diagnosis programming meaning that concerns like impulsiveness or compulsiveness that rise to the level of mental illness can be treated alongside any resultant substance abuse and other mental health issues. Our group of highly qualified and experienced clinicians is here to help, and the first step in fixing the problem is admitting to it and making that phone call.


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