Compulsivity vs. Impulsivity: What’s the Difference?

Group therapy in session sitting in a circleAt a distance, compulsive and impulsive behaviors may seem strikingly similar. Both are distinctive behavior patterns triggered by certain brain mechanisms that sometimes result in unfavorable conditions. Both are unique symptom patterns that are innate in severe mental illnesses like impulse control disorder. Other than that, the conditions are very different in how they relate to substance abuse treatment.

Compulsive Behaviors

The root word compulsion is defined by Oxford Dictionary as "an irresistible urge to behave in a certain way, especially against one's conscious wishes". Compulsive behaviors are those that are done repeatedly to serve a particular purpose, although that purpose may not be directly related to the behavior. Plus, you do this behavior even when it comes with undesirable consequences. For example, a person who has a history of disordered eating has a compulsion to binge on unhealthy foods after a day of feeling low or rejection from a friend. Once the binge has concluded, the individual feels shame because it took place. In this case, the compulsion serves as an ineffective solution to a problem or discomfort. A person is compelled to behave in this way, even if they know the behavior is inappropriate or useless at meeting the need.

Impulsive Behaviors

The root word impulse is defined by Oxford Dictionary as "a sudden strong and unreflective urge or desire to act". Impulsive behaviors are those that are executed without premeditation or advanced thought. We simply act first, and perhaps, think about the consequences of those actions later--usually when it's too late. Again, this behavior, like compulsive behavior, may lead to undesirable results. Here's an example of impulsive behavior: a group of friends are drinking and partying when someone suggests the group changes locations.  Someone in the group who has been drinking excessively all night jumps at the opportunity to drive everyone else. The group has a car accident. In the above example, the driver is given the impulse to drive only at the suggestion of someone else, however, he does not think through the decision beforehand.

Compulsivity vs Impulsivity in Relation to Substance Abuse

Close-up of a sad and depressed womanCompulsions are usually behaviors executed to meet a specific need or internal motivation. An individual may begin drinking or using drugs while experimenting with friends. Soon, they get the compulsion to use these substances on their own because the substance allows them to feel better about themselves or eliminate upsetting thoughts or feelings. Over time, an addiction develops. Addicts experience cravings for drugs that compel them to use and the behavior itself begins to serve a purpose for them mentally and emotionally, too. Impulsive behaviors, on the other hand, can arise due to an existing addiction. A gambling addict may impulsively develop a drinking habit when at the casino. Other impulsive behaviors may take place due to the addiction. Various drugs and alcohol are known to increase impulsive behaviors like stealing, participating in risky sexual behaviors, driving while under the influence, and getting into fights. If you are concerned that either compulsive or impulsive behaviors are making it difficult for you to stop using drugs or alcohol, there are solutions for you. Destination Hope assists women who struggle with substance abuse. The individualized treatment provided at Destination Hope will help you to control these undesirable behaviors that may be holding back your recovery.
Source
  1. Berlin, H.A. Understanding the differences between impulsivity and compulsivity. Psychiatric Times. July 2008. http://www.psychiatrictimes.com/impulse-control-disorders/understanding-differences-between-impulsivity-and-compulsivity
  2. Grant, J. E. & Potenza, M.N. Compulsive aspects of impulse-control disorders. June 2006. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1812126/
  3. Compulsive behaviors. Brigham Young University Idaho, Counseling Center. http://www.byui.edu/counseling-center/self-help/compulsive-behaviors
  4. Dealing with impulsive behaviors. West Virginia University. https://well.wvu.edu/articles/dealing_with_impulsive_behavior
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