Impulsivity and Alcoholism: A Story of Development

To be impulsive definitively means to act “on a whim” without any planning, forethought, or consequential consideration. People who jump off of cliffs into the ocean seem to make an impulsive decision. Indeed, sometimes they do. Most often, they’ve taken at least a moment to calculate the probability of falling safely, landing in deep enough water, and being able to climb back out somehow. Then, in that one sensational moment, they leap. Sensation-seeking and impulsivity are closely related, though not one in the same. Those who seek sensations are looking for a thrill or an escape, the experience of something different from what they know. Often, this leads to impulsive behavior whereby the need to experience a sensation is so strong, the consequence of chasing it is of little importance.

For adolescents especially, impulsivity and sensation seeking can come on strong. Puberty, socialization, and development all change at this age. Some are unable to cope or do not have the support they need to grow through this stage successfully. As a result, young adults are prone to look for thrills, walk on the wild side, and make impulsive decisions. Some call it being young and feeling alive. According to new research, certain scientists are calling it a precursor to the development of alcoholism.

Compared to teenagers who are considered low risk for developing a substance abuse problem due to family history, those with a family history of substance abuse were more likely to act impulsively and participate in more sensation seeking. These trends grew especially in subjects who began experimenting with drugs and alcohol before the age of 15.

Developmentally, adolescents are already at a higher risk for being more impulsive. A family history of substance abuse increasing that impulsivity is problematic. First, they have likely been exposed to impulsive behavior resulting in a nature vs. nurture situation- naturally as teenagers they are impulsive, but they have also been raised to see impulsive behavior as acceptable. Second, without the proper treatment and behavioral modification, teens who develop substance abuse problems are likely to become addicted or alcoholic adults. Reframing and rewiring the impulsive brain takes time and is more challenging as time goes on.

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