Impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and substance abuse have long been linked. Although individuals who abuse drugs are known to act impulsively and have subtly different neuroanatomy, it is not clear whether these changes are the cause or the effect of the abuse. Brain imaging helps in the search for impulsivity. Clearly, drug abuse damages the brain in ways that make impulsively worse; however, there seems to be a genetic predisposition involved, too–a double whammy. This conundrum between cause-and-effect has made addiction-management an extremely tricky field.
The Neuroscience of Impulse and Addiction
Impulsivity, pleasure-seeking, and substance abuse have long been associated with one another. Everyone has some impulsivity in their character. Essentially, we’re all points on a spectrum. Adolescents who experiment with recreational drugs are more likely to experience issues with self-control. Individuals who abuse drugs tend to act impulsively; they also have subtly different neuroanatomy to reflect that.
Recent studies have shed some light on the topic in the form of brain imaging. Individuals with a naturally-impulsive character are more likely to have decreased gray matter (a thinned cortex) in brain regions associated with decision-making and self-control: the middle frontal gyrus and the anterior cingulate. The latter also plays into decision-making, empathy, and numerous other functions.
However substance abuse begins, it nearly always makes impulsive behavior worse. The tricky part is that they make impulsive tendencies feel more manageable. They actually lower inhibitions, weaken judgement, and make it far more difficult to practice effective emotional coping skills. The combination of substance abuse and impulsivity can be tragic, too. Substance abusers are prone to developing intermittent explosive disorder, a condition marked by extreme aggression in non-provoking situations.
When fueled by drugs or alcohol, explosive tantrums can be devastating, or even fatal. Think of the drunk alcoholic who decides to drive home simply because he cannot bare to be out in public for the rest of the night. Impulsive behavior may not seem serious until it yields serious consequences.
Substance abuse doesn’t create impulsive behavior. It arises as part of a pattern of impulsive behavior, then makes it worse. Pathological gamblers may develop alcoholism as a result of all the drinks at the casino — or vice versa. Co-occurring pathological abuse disorders another byproduct of the addict’s impulsive nature. Entering a treatment environment that is trained to address your sense of impulsivity can help overcome the embedded addiction in your life.
Impulsivity is one of the biggest hurdles we tackle here at Hired Power, with the help of excellent therapists and innovative psychotherapy techniques. Conquering your addiction will require you to conquer the behaviors that allow it to thrive.
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