Understanding the Link Between Impulsivity and Addiction

impulsivity and addiction

Understanding the Link Between Impulsivity and Addiction

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 46.3 million people met the criteria for addiction in 2021.[1]

Addiction is a complex and chronic condition that causes people to have a hard time controlling their substance use. Because addiction is so complex, many factors can play a role in the development of it. Oftentimes, people who struggle with addiction have a history of impulsive behaviors before they ever pick up a drink or a drug. 

When someone is impulsive and suffers from a substance use disorder, they most likely have an undiagnosed mental health condition that is causing the impulsive behavior. However, there are numerous ways impulsivity and addiction are interconnected.

What is Impulsivity?

Impulsivity is a type of behavior that causes people to act on their thoughts or desires without thinking of the consequences. While children and teenagers are often impulsive, this does not necessarily mean they have a mental health condition. Some degree of impulsive behavior is a common experience, however, it can go too far.

The signs of impulsivity include:[2]

  • Interrupting people when they are talking 
  • Irritability and anxiety
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Blurting out comments at inappropriate times 
  • Intrusive thoughts 
  • Experiencing emotional outbursts 
  • Social isolation 
  • Oversharing 
  • Difficulty being patient 
  • Engaging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex, stealing, overeating, self-harm, or substance abuse 

It is common for young people to interrupt adults when they are talking, oversharing, or have a hard time concentrating. These are examples of natural impulsive behavior that is not necessarily a cause for concern. However, once impulsivity begins to affect your daily life and lead to dangerous behaviors like self-harm or substance abuse, it can be a sign of a bigger issue. 

How is Impulsivity Linked to Addiction?

The main symptom of addiction is being unable to control or moderate your substance use. Similarly, impulsivity is defined as being easily swayed by emotional or involuntary urges and momentary desires. When someone with addiction abuses a substance, they are acting on an impulse.

With that being said, addiction can be a type of impulsivity on its own. However, many people were impulsive before they ever began abusing drugs or alcohol in the first place. This could be a sign that they were struggling with an undiagnosed mental health condition that caused them to begin abusing substances to cope. 

What Mental Health Conditions Lead to Impulsive Behaviors?

If you experience impulsivity that affects your daily life, causes stress, and leads to unsafe behaviors, you could be struggling with an undiagnosed mental health condition. Many mental illnesses cause impulsive behaviors, making it important that you seek a diagnosis from a mental health professional. 

Examples of mental health conditions that cause impulsivity include:[3]

  • Impulse control disorders like gambling or kleptomania 
  • Personality disorders like borderline personality disorder 
  • Bipolar disorder 
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia 
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Mood disorders like depression 
  • Anxiety conditions 

Each of these mental illnesses causes different symptoms, however, they all have an overlap when it comes to impulsive behavior. For example, people with borderline personality disorder might behave impulsively when they feel abandoned, while someone with an eating disorder experiences impulsive behaviors surrounding food and weight. 

How Are These Mental Health Conditions Connected to Addiction?

In general, having an untreated mental health condition increases your risk of developing an addiction. Oftentimes, people who are not receiving the treatment they need for their mental illness resort to substance abuse to cope with their symptoms. Over time, this causes them to develop a co-occurring substance use disorder.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), people with a mental health condition are more likely to experience addiction than those without one, with 9.2 million adults in the United States suffering from co-occurring disorders.[4]

Mental health conditions that already cause impulsive behaviors are even more likely to lead to addiction. For example, one of the mental illnesses with a high rate of comorbidity with addiction is bipolar disorder, a condition that causes impulsivity during manic episodes. At least 40% of people with bipolar disorder also suffer from substance abuse.[5]

One of the other conditions known to cause impulsivity is eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Studies have shown that “Approximately 50% of individuals with an eating disorder (ED) abuse or are dependent on alcohol or illicit substances compared with approximately 9% of the general population.”[6]

Thankfully, it is possible to receive treatment for impulsivity, mental health conditions, and addiction at the same time. Dual-diagnosis treatment centers combine mental health treatment tactics with evidence-based addiction treatment methods, allowing you to recover from all of your co-occurring disorders simultaneously. 

Dual Diagnosis Treatment Center in Delray Beach, FL

If you or a loved one have a mental health condition that causes impulsivity and addiction, it’s time to seek help. Dual-diagnosis treatment centers like Florida Recovery Group can provide you with treatment for your mental illness and addiction at the same time, effectively helping you achieve a higher quality of life. 

To learn more about our holistic dual diagnosis rehab program, contact us today. 


  1. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS): SAMHSA Announces National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) Results Detailing Mental Illness and Substance Use Levels in 2021, Retrieved October 2023 From https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/01/04/samhsa-announces-national-survey-drug-use-health-results-detailing-mental-illness-substance-use-levels-2021.html
  2. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): Impulsivity: A Predisposition Toward Risky Behaviors, Retrieved October 2023 From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4080475/
  3. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): [Impulsivity and mental disorders], Retrieved October 2023 From https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15793698/
  4. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Co-Occurring Disorders and Other Health Conditions, Retrieved October 2023 From https://www.samhsa.gov/medications-substance-use-disorders/medications-counseling-related-conditions/co-occurring-disorders
  5. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): The prevalence and significance of substance use disorders in bipolar type I and II disorder, Retrieved October 2023 From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2094705/
  6. The National Library of Medicine (NLM): Patterns of Comorbidity of Eating Disorders and Substance Use in Swedish Females, Retrieved October 2023 From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2788663/