What Is the Difference Between an Impulsive and a Compulsive Disorder?

Compulsive hand washing may be a sign of OCD, a compulsive disorder.
Pyromania is an impulse control disorder.
Gambling addiction is an impulsive disorder.
Article Details
  • Written By: Erin J. Hill
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 20 June 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    Conjecture Corporation
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While they may sound similar, an impulsive and a compulsive disorder are often dramatically different in that the reasoning behind a person’s actions is different for each type of disorder. Both types of mental illness involve repetitive behaviors that seem to be performed almost beyond the person’s control. The difference is that compulsive behaviors are generally performed in an effort to soothe anxiety or to prevent some sort of perceived consequence from occurring. Impulsive behaviors usually provide the person with some sort of pleasurable sensation and are used to cope with stress or tension.

Based on this description alone, the differences between an impulsive and a compulsive disorder may not be immediately apparent. Some experts argue that the two forms of illness may be linked in some way. Both are typically related to an imbalance of certain chemicals in the brain and genetics may also play a role in both types of disorder.

Despite these similarities, there is no denying the differences between an impulsive and a compulsive disorder once you get into greater detail on what each type of disorder really entails. The most widely known compulsive disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), involves the use of rituals and compulsive behaviors. These actions are usually performed in an attempt by the person to relieve anxious feelings. Anxiety is often conceived within the person’s mind and is typically not related to any real threat or danger.


Someone with OCD may wash his hands repeatedly, for example. The act of washing his hands would usually be repeated over and over again until anxiety subsides. This anxiety may be due to the belief that there are deadly germs which must be killed through constant washing, or it may not be due to any specifically defined threat at all. Washing of the hands would only subside once the anxiety was lessened or alleviated entirely. Many sufferers of OCD say they continue with certain rituals in this manner until it “feels right.”

Impulsive behaviors are similar to this, but they are not performed in a premeditated way as with compulsive behaviors. Those with OCD may spend a lot of time thinking about his or her rituals in an attempt to rationalize them or to determine when they are done performing a specific action. People who have an impulsive disorder do not think about their actions before doing them.

There are various types of impulsive disorders. Some sufferers may act out spontaneously as soon as a thought enters their minds. Others may impulsively engage in risky behaviors in an attempt to self medicate. Many addictions could be categorized as impulsive disorders because those who have them continue engaging in the addictive behaviors, even when they are detrimental to health.

Impulsive disorders are often related to illegal or harmful actions. Drinking, doing drugs, engaging in risky sexual behavior, and gambling may all be considered impulsive behaviors. Those who lash out violently or sexually may also have impulsive conditions. This illustrates one of the main differences between an impulsive and compulsive disorder, since most compulsive individuals commit to rituals which are more psychologically, rather than physically, harmful.


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