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Did you ever play hooky? Have a fling? Go shopping like you had just gotten a divorce from a lottery winner? While actions have consequences, many psychologists regard occasional impulsive behavior as a sign of emotional health, a healthy defiance of routine. And when opportunities are fleeting, sometimes a quick response yields highly desirable results.
On the other hand, blowing up every time someone says something you don't like, or being absent from work more often than you show up, or seeking a new sex partner every night, or several times every night, suggests an unhealthy lack of impulse control. Mental health professionals believe that the advent of widespread use of the Internet, iPhones, and electronic communications aggravates impulse control disorders in people who might otherwise easily be able to control them.
The Flip Side Of Impulse Control Disorders
At the opposite end of the psychological spectrum, some people demonstrate the opposite of impulse control disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, also known as OCD. In the 1997 film "As Good As It Gets," actor Jack Nicholson portrayed fictional character Melvin Udall, who locked doors and flipped light switches exactly five times, avoided stepping on cracks, and washed his hands repeatedly, each time throwing out the bar of soap he had just used. Several scenes in the movie take place at a diner, where Nicholson's character sits at the same table every day, eating with utensils wrapped in plastic and brought from home.
Research scientists believe that impulse control disorders, also known as ICDs, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, also known as OCD, share a common disease process in the brain. Successfully treating one set of mental health issues may yield successful treatments for the other.
What Goes Wrong In ICD And OCD?
Human brains are designed to respond to a group of feel-good chemicals known as the endorphins. The endorphins block the sensation of pain, and they also produce a sense of euphoria.
In impulse control disorders, the brain produces certain kinds of endorphins too readily. An impulsive action produces a quick hit of endorphins that results in feeling good right away. What kinds of impulsive action result in fast and excessive endorphin production?
- Stealing items on impulse (kleptomania).
- Setting fires (pyromania).
- Losing one's temper (intermittent explosive disorder), and
- Pulling out hair (trichotillomania).
Psychiatric associations have also suggested that bizarre patterns of Internet use, shopping addictions, compulsive picking at one's skin or toes, and compulsive picking at the skin may also be impulse control disorders. Even when there are clear negative consequences of the activity and the person is aware of them, the release of endorphins triggered by the activity is just too much to resists.
At the other end of the spectrum, some people do the same thing over and over again as if their brains were hoping for a reward. People who perform compulsive acts like the movie character Mel Udall, mentioned above, have brains that don't make enough endorphins, although they usually have normal levels of stress hormones.