If, as adults, we find we have poor impulse control, this may be, in large part, due to the legacy of a disturbed and traumatic childhood. For example, those who have suffered severe and chronic childhood trauma are more likely to suffer from conditions such as borderline personality disorder (BPD) and anti-social personality disorder (APD) than the average person and both these conditions include impulsiveness as one of the symptoms.
If a person is impulsive it means s/he often acts prematurely with insufficient planning and lack of thoughtful deliberation; importantly, too, impulsiveness (when it is pathological) involves repeated efforts to make short-term gains but at the expense of long-term gains.
Tell-tale signs that a person may be impulsive:
– frequently making inappropriate comments (speaking without forethought)
– constantly interrupting others during conversations
– often displaying impatience (e.g when having to wait in queues)
Impulse control disorders may involve:
– ‘binge’ shopping for unnecessary items (although many ‘binge’ shoppers indulge in the activity in an attempt to escape from negative emotions such as depression)
– excessive use of alcohol/narcotics (which may themselves increase impulsiveness, thus creating a vicious cycle)
– binge eating (again, though, many indulge in binge eating to overcome – temporarily, of course – negative emotions)
– dangerous risk-taking (such as dangerous overtaking of other vehicles when driving)
– promiscuous, unsafe sex
– intermittent explosive disorder (I.E.D)
– pathological gambling
The Five Main Stages Involved In Impulse Control Disorders:
Research has identified five main stages a person who has pathological problems controlling his/her impulses goes through; these are:
STAGE 1: The experience of a powerful urge
STAGE 2: A failure to resist/inhibit this urge
STAGE 3: A state of high excitement/arousal (with physical and psychological manifestations)
STAGE 4: Giving in to the urge (this usually results in a sense of deep relief from tension)
STAGE 5: Feelings of guilt for having carried out the impulsive act (this feeling of guilt may be very intense and involve profound feelings of self-disgust, self-loathing and self-hatred).
Brain Regions Thought To Be Involved In Impulse Control Disorders:
Although further research is required in order to determine with greater accuracy how certain brain regions are involved in impulse-control disorders, it is currently hypothesized that damage to both the amygdala and orbitofrontal cortex may be relevant (it is also believed that these parts of the brain may be damaged by the experience of significant childhood trauma). Furthermore, it is theorized that the brain’s executive function may also be impaired.
Theories also exist that suggest people who suffer from impulse-control disorders are likely to have lower than normal levels of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin in their brains.
The Possible Role Of Genes:
It is also thought that the dopamine receptor and serotonin receptor genes may be involved in impulse-control disorders which would, of course, follow from the above.
Risk-Taking And Decision Making :
Below I outline a study that suggests that childhood trauma can impair our ability to make decisions and accurately assess risk, both of which deficits are linked to impulsiveness.
Part One Of The Study :
Part One of a study conducted by Professor Seth Pollak (University of Wisconsin-Madison) involving over 50 young people (from a range of backgrounds and all approximately 20 years of age), required the participants to engage in various tasks (for example, simulated gambling) in order to ascertain their behavioural responses reward/punishment and risk-taking.
Results Part One Of The Study :
It was found that those who had experienced trauma / severe stress as children had impaired ability to make good decisions and to accurately assess risk compared to those young people who had not experienced trauma / severe stress while growing up; especially noteworthy was the finding that, whilst participating in such tasks, those individuals who had experienced trauma / severe stress as children showed a marked inability to learn from their mistakes as well as poor levels of concentration.
Brain Scans :
Whilst the participants were in the ‘decision making’ phase of the task, scans of their brains were taken; these scans revealed that the individuals who had experienced trauma / severe stress during childhood displayed BELOW NORMAL ACTIVITY in the area of the brain associated with decision making.
Part Two Of The Study :
The second part of the study was intended to discover how the same group of over 50 young people behaved in real life in relation to decision making.
This was carried out by giving the participants a questionnaire to fill out which comprised various questions about how much risk they took (e.g. do you wear a seat-belt?).
Results Of Part Two Of The Study :
The results of this part of the study were very similar to those found from the first part of the study, i.e. the participants who had suffered trauma / severe stress during childhood made worse decisions / indulged in riskier behaviours in real life compared to the participants who had not experienced trauma / severe stress during childhood.
It was inferred from these results that severe stress during childhood adversely affects the way in which the brain functions when making decisions leading to poor judgment and a higher than normal propensity to indulge in risk-taking behaviour in those affected.
It was also found that these deficits in decision-making ability were unrelated to I.Q. or intelligence. Because of this, Pollak likened such deficits to a specific ‘learning disability’ which impairs individuals’ ability to effectively process information relating to potential loss or risk.
Implications For Youth Justice System :
Pollak also points out that up to 90 per cent of young people who become embroiled with the criminal justice system have experienced childhood trauma, and, if they do indeed have a kind of specific ‘learning disability’ (as described above and as the findings of this study suggest) then, in many cases, punishment is neither appropriate nor a solution.
Instead, Pollak suggests that, when dealing with young offenders, it will often be far better for these individuals to participate in training programs that improve the brain’s decision-making capabilities.
Related Post: Is PTSD Being Misdiagnosed As ADHD?
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).