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Addiction and the Risk of Impulsive Behaviors

Drug and alcohol addiction develop as the result of an inability to control impulsive behavior. This has been found to be present both at the first instance of use as well as during periods of relapse. The ability to control one’s own impulses is a key factor to successful recovery with inpatient drug treatment centers and, in understanding this behavior, one can take steps to prevent relapse well before it occurs.

What Is Impulsive Behavior?

Individuals who engage in impulsive behavior do so out of the need to experience pleasure. This type of behavior is characterized by a feeling of anticipation and arousal prior to using, and then gratification, pleasure, and release following using.

An example of impulsive behavior that would require substance abuse treatment is drinking or doing drugs despite the fact that you may have to attend an important work meeting early the next day. This behavior is characterized by a need for immediate gratification, and then an inability to stop the process leading to the behavior once the decision has been made to engage in it.

What Is Compulsive Behavior?

Impulsive behavior is very different from compulsive behavior. Compulsive behavior is defined as that in which an individual engages for the purpose of minimizing negative feelings. Usually habitual in nature, a compulsive behavior will occur repeatedly, despite the fact that the behavior has caused problems for an individual in the past.

An example of compulsive behavior would be continuing to feel the urge to drink prior to going to a place where stress is anticipated, such as work, despite the fact that you got into trouble for doing this in the past. One of the hallmarks of compulsive behavior is the feeling that using is the only way you will be able to function normally in a situation you perceive as being stressful.

The Link Between Impulsivity and Compulsivity in Addiction

Although both types of behavior are seen in those addicted to drugs or alcohol, the impulse to use occurs at a very early stage of addiction. It is only later on that a shift from impulsive to compulsive behavior occurs. Early on in an addiction, the pleasure one gets from using is the primary motivator, so much so that one will only focus on the pleasure and not the consequences of the action.

However, as one continues to use, pleasure becomes secondary, and relieving perceived pain or discomfort becomes the main focus. At this point, using shifts to a compulsive instead of a pleasure-seeking behavior that typically requires alcohol or drug rehab.

Common Impulsive Behaviors Displayed by Addicted Individuals

In addition to the use of their drug of choice, addicted individuals may also exhibit other forms of impulsive behavior. All of these carry the same lack of concern for possible negative consequences:

  • Excessive spending, also known as shopping addiction
  • Seeking out and engaging in unsafe sex
  • Engaging in gambling for pleasure
  • Driving drunk or high
  • Overdosing, despite the well-known risks of doing so

Adverse Consequences of Impulsive Behaviors

When a person begins abusing drugs and alcohol, damage to the brain’s pre-frontal cortex occurs. This part of the brain is responsible for stopping certain behaviors, but, when damaged by addiction, it is no longer in charge of controlling the way in which individuals behave. Instead, the addiction controls their behavior. The consequences of engaging in drug use and its associated impulsive behavior can affect every aspect of one’s life.


The negative physical consequences of impulsive behavior are well-documented. Regardless of the type of impulsive behavior in which one engages, doing so can negatively affect the body in several ways. For instance, even forgoing sleep in order to engage in impulsive behavior can impact several processes.

Excessive drug and alcohol use also negatively affects every major organ and system in the body, causing damage that may or may not be reparable. Addiction can also cause many physical problems, including cirrhosis of the liver, respiratory disease, and several types of cancer.

lonely drunk girl at a nightclub


Individuals who become addicted and require drug or alcohol rehab also typically have co-occurring depression, anxiety, or emotional disorders. If these co-occurring disorders are not diagnosed, further mental damage can be the result. For those with co-occurring disorders, holistic treatment is most effective, as it addresses all aspects of addiction.


Addiction also negatively affects individuals in terms of their relationships. When an addiction becomes one’s sole focus, the neglect of personal and work relationships typically occurs. A marriage may break down, friends may be alienated, and work responsibilities may no longer seem important when compared with the rewards of getting high.


Negative financial consequences can be the result of all forms of impulsive behavior. Whether it’s drug or alcohol addiction, gambling, sex, or another impulsive behavior, one can end up spending more than they can afford to engage in it; so much so that bankruptcy, foreclosure, repossession, and other disastrous financial consequences can become a reality.


The legal consequences of addiction are numerous. Those engaging in drug use may commit illegal acts to fund their addictions. One who is an alcoholic and drives drunk can be charged with impaired driving and be found liable for the injury or death of the other driver. Repeated charges can lead to jail time, as well as a mountain of legal costs.

Genetics Play a Role in Addiction

There are “addiction genes” which can cause an individual to be more vulnerable to becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol and make it more difficult for a person to stop using. However, possessing these genes doesn’t automatically doom a person to becoming an addict. The reality is that a number of genetic traits, as well as environmental factors, must be present in order for addiction to occur.

Environmental Factors

Several environmental factors can have an influence on the likelihood that a person will become an addict and require outpatient rehab. An individual’s economic status, religion, and culture are significant factors. As well, there are social factors which can increase the likelihood of addiction. These include:

  • Type of childhood and level of parental involvement
  • Poverty
  • Lack of education, whether due to cultural or other reasons

Triggers are another type of environmental factor which can lead to addiction. Triggers make it more difficult to resist using and include:

  • A person’s friends or family, who may also use and may have introduced the person to a substance
  • A location that marked the first abuse of a substance, such as a bar or a friend’s home

Overcoming Addiction

Despite the fact that a co-occurring disorder, genetics, or environmental factors may have contributed to the development of an addiction, it can be overcome. The chemical, mental, and physical changes caused by addiction can be counteracted. Over time, the use of certain tools and techniques will have a positive effect on the brain, causing it to adjust and correct itself.

Being able to identify behaviors and factors and increased vulnerability to addiction and use this knowledge in conjunction with the following tools can also be incredibly effective for maintaining long-term sobriety. Some of the tools used to combat addiction include:

  • Delayed action on impulses by waiting a certain amount of time before using
  • Employing mindfulness strategies to remain in the moment and not anticipate stress or pain
  • Creating a plan to deal with cravings in a positive way—i.e., going for a walk when you crave a drink
  • Asking those who are close to you to point out undesirable behavior that you may not notice to help you get control of your impulses

woman open arms to sunrise

Get Started on Your Journey to Recovery

Regardless of the presence of genetic and environmental factors that caused you to become addicted and how difficult overcoming that addiction may be, obtaining long-term recovery is most certainly possible. Success involves working every day on changing your behavior, and Retreat Premier Addiction Treatment Centers can help.

Our holistic approach focuses on treating the mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of addiction and co-occurring disorders. We provide you with the tools you need to not only cope with the impulse to use but also to repair and rebuild your relationships with others and yourself. Discover how Retreat can help you overcome your addiction and maintain long-term sobriety—call1-855-859-8808.