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Substance-Using Impulses Can Be Controlled, Study Finds

Current evidence from a team of American researchers indicates that it’s possible to learn how to control the impulsive behaviors that increase any given person’s risks for diagnosable substance problems.

Unusually impulsive behavior in adults is firmly associated with increased chances of eventually developing the symptoms of substance use disorder (diagnosable substance abuse/substance addiction). In a study published in March 2015 in the journal Behavioural Processes, researchers from Kansas State University used laboratory testing on rats to assess the effectiveness of behavioral interventions designed to decrease the impact of impulsive tendencies. These researchers concluded that such interventions can produce a benefit for substance abusers and other people by increasing a preference for longer-term rewards and decreasing the preference for short-term rewards commonly found in highly impulsive people.

Substance Use Disorder

Substance use disorder is a relatively new medical and public health concept that combines the diagnosis of non-addicted, dysfunctional substance abuse with the diagnosis of physically dependent substance addiction. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) put this concept into daily use among U.S. doctors in 2013 when it replaced independent diagnoses for substance abuse and substance addiction with the joint substance use disorder diagnosis. A person who fits the criteria for this diagnosis has at least two symptoms that indicate the presence of separate or co-occurring problems with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or non-addicted drug or alcohol abuse. Threshold cases of the condition are known as mild substance use disorder. People with four or five symptoms of abuse/addiction have moderate substance use disorder, while people with six to 11 symptoms have severe cases of the disorder.

Within the larger substance use disorder diagnosis, the APA maintains subcategories of illness for all common sources of substance problems, including alcohol, opioid medications and drugs, sedative-hypnotic medications, marijuana and other forms of cannabis, tobacco/nicotine, inhalants, stimulants and hallucinogens. Names for these substance use disorder subcategories correspondingly include alcohol use disorder, opioid use disorder, cannabis use disorder, inhalant use disorder, stimulant use disorder and the more elaborately titled sedative, hypnotic or anxiolytic use disorder.

Impulsive Behavior

By the time they reach their mid-20s, all humans have an established baseline ability to avoid acting in impulsive ways and prevent exposure to the potentially disastrous consequences of reckless behavior. Each individual’s ability to control impulsive behavior is determined by factors that include genetic inheritance, exposure to a broad range of environmental influences and the particular course of the process of growth and development during early childhood and adolescence. Unfortunately, some adults have a relatively pronounced tendency to act in impulsive ways even after reaching their mid-20s. In addition to diagnosable issues with substance use, known mental health difficulties associated with chronic involvement in unusually impulsive behavior include the bipolar disorder symptom called mania and any one of the 10 illnesses classified as personality disorders.

Can You Improve Behavioral Control?

In the study published in Behavioural Processes, researchers used three laboratory experiments on rats to assess the possibility of retroactively correcting overly impulsive behavior in humans and thereby reducing the risks for substance use disorder and certain other impulsivity-related mental health or behavioral issues. All of the experiments required the rats to delay their normal responses to rewarding or pleasure-inducing situations. In addition to producing a general delay in reward-related responses, two of the experiments required the rats to time their reactions with a relatively high degree of precision in order to receive access to an eventual reward.

When they performed a “before-and-after” analysis of the rats, the researchers concluded that all three of the experimental interventions increased the animals’ ability to avoid accepting small, short-term rewards in order to gain access to larger, longer-term rewards. They also concluded that the timing-based interventions improved the animals’ ability to delay rewards for precise amounts of time, not just general amounts of time.

The study’s authors believe the results of their experiments demonstrate the possibility of teaching someone how to overcome his or her established impulsive tendencies and learn how to trade off relatively insignificant short-term rewards for more substantial long-term rewards. They also believe that, ultimately, impulsivity interventions may help people avoid substance use disorder or other impulsivity-related problems, in addition to potentially aiding recovery from these problems.

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