16 Apr Impulse Control and Substance Abuse: It’s Never Too Late to Change Habits
Drug abuse and alcoholism have their roots in many causes. Some people turn to drugs and alcohol to self-medicate the unrelenting pain of past abuse or trauma. Others may be more prone to substance abuse because they live with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. However, there’s another group of people with behavior linked to increased addiction rates: those who have a difficult time controlling their impulses.
Impulsive behavior has two main characteristics: hasty decisions made without thinking them through, and a lack of concern for the consequences of those decisions. Impulsivity is typically not defined by a single act; instead, it’s a pattern of behavior. One spontaneous bad decision doesn’t make a person impulsive. Rather, it involves continually making choices to act without thinking them through or considering the potential outcome. Research suggests that some people may have a predisposition to acting impulsively.
The problem of impulsivity manifests itself in many ways. In some individuals it leads to excessive shopping or gambling. For others, it may lead to poor decisions regarding sexual relationships or finances. Social interactions can be problematic, as impulsive behavior can cause people to speak before they think, leading to conflicts or hurt feelings. Difficulties with poor self-control has even been implicated in the development of type 2 diabetes, as the trait may make it harder for a person to resist unhealthy calorie-laden, high-fat foods.
How Impulse Control Affects Substance Abuse
The inability to resist an impulsive action connects with drug abuse and alcoholism in two ways. First, lack of control makes it hard to resist a substance. This often leads to excessive use and a destructive habit. Second, impulsiveness plays an adverse role in the recovery process. When a person is unable to properly control his or her actions, it becomes more challenging to stay sober.
Research supports the idea that people with impulsive tendencies may be more prone to drink excessively or abuse drugs. For instance, one study of male college students found that those who used marijuana or alcohol were more impulsive than those who did not. The substance-using men were found to give quick responses or complete tasks quickly, causing them to make more mistakes. Likewise, another study discovered that imprisoned substance-abusers demonstrated higher rates of impulsivity than those without addiction problems.
A person’s level of impulsiveness can also predict whether casual drug use will turn into an addiction. A study using rats at the University of Cambridge found that those with lower levels of impulsivity were not as likely to become addicted after being exposed to cocaine. Highly impulsive rats, however, developed compulsive drug use. The scientists say it shows the importance of impulsivity as a risk factor for drug use.
While impulsive behavior can trigger drug abuse or alcoholism, the reverse is also true. Substance abuse can fuel impulsive actions, creating a vicious and negative behavior cycle that’s hard to break free from.
Tips for Managing Impulsive Behavior
It is never too late to change habits, which means you can improve your self-control. One study of rats found that training the brain to resist impulses actually increases the strength of electrical signals in the brain. You don’t need to be a lab rat, however, to re-learn the impulsive behavior that can lead to substance abuse or cause a relapse.
Seek addiction treatment: If you struggle with drug abuse or alcoholism, the first priority is to seek professional treatment—it’s simply the most effective path toward living a healthier life. Addiction treatment will help you change destructive patterns of behavior. Therapy will likely focus on conditioning and behavior modification. You’ll learn how to manage undesirable emotions and make appropriate, thoughtful decisions.
Get a mental health evaluation: Being impulsive doesn’t necessarily mean you have a psychiatric disorder. However, if you find that impulsivity is regularly affecting the quality of your life, your relationships, or your career, it’s worth your while to have an evaluation. A mental health professional can assess you for such impulse-related disorders as ADHD or bipolar disorder.
Keep good company: Do you have impulsive friends? If so, you may want to reconsider how much time you spend with them. Spending time with people who aren’t impulsive can help you keep your behavior in check. Seek out those who are likely to accurately assess the situation and say, “Let’s go. We’ve had enough to drink tonight,” rather than friends who encourage impulsive behavior and give little to no thought to the consequences.
Learn mindfulness: Mindfulness involves increased mental awareness and focus. It’s long been used in Eastern cultures as part of traditional meditation practices. Being mindful means you are aware of your external surroundings and circumstances as well as your internal responses to them. Mindfulness works by forcing you to slow down and take time to evaluate the world. It takes your mind out of autopilot mode, thus reducing or eliminating impulses.
Create speed bumps: One way to battle impulsiveness is by creating an environment that makes you stop and think before you can act. For instance, if you have an impulse to reach for a glass of wine after dinner every night, stop buying wine. Can you go out and buy more wine if you want to? Of course. But it requires an extra, time-consuming step that forces you to actively consider, “Do I really want to be hassled by going out to buy alcohol when I’ve already settled in for the night?” The more “speed bumps” or obstacles you can create between you and alcohol or drugs, the better.
Acting before thinking often has serious consequences. However, you can gain control over the impulses that can lead to challenging or even dangerous habits, like drug abuse and alcoholism. Start making lifestyle changes, and, if needed, reach out for professional treatment. Difficult as it may seem, you do have the power to take control and change impulsive habits.
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