Impulsive behavior and addiction go hand in hand. Acting impulsively can keep you trapped in a cycle of addiction, while using drugs and alcohol can make you act more impulsively. Luckily, understanding the connection between impulsive behavior and addiction can help you overcome substance abuse challenges. Recognizing and acknowledging the link between impulsivity and addiction can also help you:

  • Avoid relapse
  • Act more intentionally
  • Rewire your brain with healthier patterns
  • Maintain a balanced diet
  • Handle stressful situations
  • Better regulate your emotions
  • Reduce anxiety and depression

Understanding Impulsivity

Impulsivity is the quality of being easily swayed by emotional or involuntary urges or by momentary desires, without weighing them rationally. In short, being impulsive means acting without thinking. Typically, impulsive decisions are quick choices made to satisfy an immediate need for gratification or pleasure.

An example of impulsive behavior is deciding to get drunk or high even though you need to be up early in the morning for work. The decision to drink alcohol or use drugs isn’t based on rational thinking. Instead, the choice satisfies an urgent desire for pleasure and quick gratification. Before you even have a chance to think about the invitation, impulsivity kicks in, prompting you to agree to get drunk or high. Generally, impulsive decisions are made so quickly that they may seem like they happen out of nowhere, but in reality, impulsive behavior happens in 5 distinct stages.

What Causes Impulsive Behavior?

Impulsive behavior comes from the same place the rest of your behaviors do: the brain. Even though scientists haven’t fully figured out how impulsivity works in the brain, they have discovered that impulsive behavior seems to be linked to:

  • An increased amount of a chemical compound. Through animal studies, researchers have discovered that high amounts of a peptide called melanin-concentrating hormone (MCH) lead to less efficient and more impulsive behavior.
  • Abnormal changes in the hypothalamus and hippocampus. The hypothalamus helps regulate your appetite and emotional responses. The hippocampus helps control your emotions, memory, and motivation. Typically, these two brain regions work together to help control impulses, but when increased or reduced amounts of MCH travel from the lateral hypothalamus to the ventral hippocampus, impulsive behavior seems to increase.

You might also act more impulsively when you’re faced with:

  • Stress. High levels of stress can cripple the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps you concentrate, plan, and make rational decisions. When this happens, you lose the ability to be reflective which can result in impulsive behavior.
  • Ego depletion. When you use up all your available willpower on a series of tasks, situations, or circumstances, you can experience ego depletion, which can lead to a loss of motivation. When your ego is depleted, you’re less likely to control any sudden urges or impulses.
  • Cognitive load. When your mind is preoccupied, your short-term mind guides your choices. Unfortunately, this short-term mind isn’t very good at making deliberate, well-thought-out decisions, which can often lead to impulsivity.
  • Decreased blood sugar levels. Glucose converts into chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. When your blood sugar levels drop, so do the brain’s neurotransmitters which can make you act more impulsively.

Drinking alcohol and using drugs can also make you more impulsive. Let’s take an in-depth look at the connection between addiction and impulsive behavior.

Impulsivity and Addiction: Understanding The Connection

Addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol affect the way the brain functions. These changes are often responsible for the connection that exists between impulsive behavior and addiction. For example:

  • Addiction weakens the region of the brain responsible for rational thinking. Using drugs and alcohol weakens the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is referred to as “the thinking [part of the] brain” because it helps you make rational, logical, and sound decisions. This area of the brain also helps you override impulsive urges. A weakened prefrontal cortex can make you more likely to act impulsively and dull your emotional responses. For example, instead of feeling shame about a DUI, alcohol, which weakens the prefrontal cortex, can make you feel numb instead. Unfortunately, this numbness can interfere with your decision-making process, which may make you think it’s okay to continue to drink and drive.
  • Addiction diminishes brain chemicals that regulate patience. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps you maintain a healthy sense of well-being. When serotonin is released in the orbitofrontal cortex, this neurotransmitter promotes patience. Chronic use of drugs and alcohol trick the brain into thinking it doesn’t need to produce serotonin naturally. Unfortunately, this can make you impatient and quick to act, which can lead to impulsive behavior. An animal study performed by researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the New York Psychiatric Institute seems to confirm a link between a lack of serotonin receptors in the brain and impulsive behavior.
  • Addiction decreases brain chemicals responsible for well-thought-out decisions. Brain imaging studies show that addiction blunts dopamine transmission throughout the brain and decreases dopamine receptors in the ventral striatum. In addition to helping you feel pleasure, dopamine also helps determine your sources of motivation. When dopamine levels are low, your motivation diminishes. When dopamine receptors in the ventral striatum are low, your motivation to make intentional, deliberate, well-thought-out decisions decreases, making you more vulnerable to quick, impulsive decisions.

In addition to these brain changes, addiction:

  • Can develop from impulsive behavior. Impulsively drinking alcohol and using drugs can increase your tolerance for these substances. Unfortunately, this can make you need to drink or use more drugs to get the same effect. When left untreated, this impulsive, pleasure-seeking behavior can lead to addiction.
  • Thrives on impulsive and compulsive behaviors. Even though most addictions begin as a result of seeking pleasure, the same impulsive behavior that helped satisfy your need for pleasure works against you to keep you addicted. Instead of using substances for pleasure, you begin to compulsively use them to avoid negative or disturbing feelings, thoughts, or pain. Unfortunately, compulsively using substances can lead to more impulsive behavior.
  • Can be effectively treated by learning to control impulsive urges. Behavioral counseling, mindfulness, yoga, and meditation can help you learn to control your impulses. Engaging in these activities can help you become less susceptible to cravings, which can help you overcome addiction challenges and avoid relapse.

Let Us Help You Live Intentionally

Here at Soba Recovery, we believe that everyone can live an intentional, thriving, and purpose-filled life. Our comprehensive addiction treatment programs can help you overcome the impulsive and compulsive behavior associated with addiction. Contact us today if you’re ready to overcome impulsive behavior and live more intentionally.

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