Impulsivity & Its Relationship To Alcohol & Drug Addiction (Pt. 1)

In episode 268 of Elevation Recovery, Chris Scott and Matt Finch discuss impulsivity and their personal stories dealing with this aspect of addiction. They touch on some of the remedies for impulsivity and the other areas of life impulsivity can affect.

Links to Resources Mentioned in this Episode:

Here are some ways to learn from this episode:

Chris Scott: Your brain is just on fire, and so you just need to do something, and it's not always the best thing. For some people it could be eating. For other people it could just be drinking more or taking more of the drugs. For other people it could be acting out sexually and inappropriately, doing all sorts of things. So there's a wide variety of manifestations of impulsive behavior.

Matt Finch: More often, in my case for sure, I got addicted to substances because of my impulsivity, because of my high sensation seeking trait. I would invest more time, energy, and put myself into more and more dangerous situations to try to get some type of a high sensation payoff. So that was a big part of the impulsivity.

Announcer: Thanks for tuning to the Elevation Recovery Podcast, your hub for addiction recovery strategies. Hosted by Chris Scott and Matt Finch.

Matt Finch: Welcome, everybody, to episode 268. My name is Matt Finch, and I'm here with my friend and co-host Chris Scott, who just came back from a really awesome business trip to New York. I'm super jealous. I saw some of the pictures, looked like fun. And you were there, Chris, probably pretty close to your old stomping grounds regarding all the alcohol, binge drinking, then alcoholism, physiological dependence. And what led to that was probably a little bit of impulsivity. The reason I bring up that word is that's our topic today, impulsivity and its relationship to addiction.

Matt Finch: Since we don't have a lot of time, maybe we'll do this a part one, because this is a huge topic. So we'll call this impulsivity and addiction part one. Wikipedia has an amazing page on impulsivity. So I'm just going to read a couple paragraphs, and we're going to talk about it.

Matt Finch: "In psychology, impulsivity or impulsiveness is a tendency to act on a whim, displaying behavior characterized by little or no forethought, reflection, or consideration of the consequences. Impulsive actions are typically poorly conceived, prematurely expressed, unduly risky, or inappropriate to the situation, that often result in negative consequences, which imperil long term goals and strategies for success.

Matt Finch: Impulsivity can be classified as a multifactorial construct, a functional variety of impulsivity..." Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah... "Has also been suggested, which involves action without much forethought in appropriate situations that can and does result in desirable consequences. When such actions have positive outcomes, they tend not to be seen as signs of impulsivity, but as indicators of boldness, quickness, spontaneity, courageousness, or unconventionality."

Matt Finch: So I won't continue to read. I highly recommend that page on Wikipedia, but what do you think, Chris? As I talk about impulsiveness, and it goes on to say that impulsivity is actions where you don't think about it too much, where there's some reward coming after. Right? [crosstalk 00:03:10] So when I used to drink, for example, start drinking or something, that would start to get me energized and hypomanic. From that hypomanic place, I'm all energized and activated and confident, I would make very impulsive decisions. Matter of fact, I was already very impulsive without substances. And I'd go downhill skateboarding and almost die, big wave surfing and almost die. Just my loud mouth would get me into trouble. I'd almost get jumped, beat up by a bunch of people.

Matt Finch: So just all my life, even many years into addiction recovery... Probably a few years ago, finally, I began to really calm down the impulsiveness. Impulsiveness is hardcore integrated with addiction, so substance use disorders, behavioral disorders, impulsive shopping, impulsive gambling, impulsive drinking, impulsive drug using, impulsive promiscuity. It's just basically... I think the remedy to that, and we can get into that either in this episode or part two, the remedy would be things like patience, mindfulness, self regulation, having a break in between when you get the idea to do something or when somebody asks you to go do something, rather than just being impulsive and doing it without much forethought, without much thought into the short term and long term potential consequences, taking a break, separating it, and having a mindfulness element to where you actually have a pause in between these sensations we're getting and in between how we're actually behaving.

Chris Scott: Right. Yeah. I think this is a big topic. So I think splitting it into part one and part two is a good idea. Impulsivity is obviously at the heart of addiction and behavior, that compulsive behavior is addiction in large part. And yet when I think about, from my own perspective, biochemical repair, what are we trying to fix? What are we trying to help? What kind of behavior seems to be most ameliorated with nutrient repair and the lifestyle tools that we try to arm people with? I think of things like low blood sugar.

Chris Scott: And so when someone has low blood sugar because they've been drinking or because they're in withdrawal, it makes them more impulsive. I know that I'm more impulsive when I have low blood sugar. And obviously, the thing I'm most likely to do impulsively is eat, but there are other things as well. I'm, there's a paucity or a lack of dopamine when you have low blood sugar, and it can make you do things that you otherwise might not do. You might snap at someone, you might say something. Everyone knows, if you get hangry, it's a very common thing. You get hangry and you snap at someone, and later on, you have to apologize. So that's short term impulsivity, most people can relate to.

Chris Scott: What a lot of people don't realize is that alcohol is a highly refined sugar that causes a ridiculous roller coaster in blood sugar levels. You drink and then you have an increase in blood sugar. Insulin comes, wipes out the blood sugar, wipes out amino acids that are precursors for neurotransmitters like dopamine. Later on, you're low dopamine and you're low blood sugar. So that's just one pathway.

Chris Scott: In addition to that, you would have sleep deprivation, which is very common with addiction. Maybe because you're up all night taking drugs or drinking, or just the fact that, as we know from... I can't remember the call. I think it's Dr. Matt Walker who wrote Why We Sleep, just one drink disrupts your REM sleep. So imagine having 10 drinks or even five drinks, or if you're like me, 20 or 30 drinks night after night after night. You're getting basically no REM sleep. You're never rested. And we know that there is a correlation between impulsive behavior and sleep deprivation. There's lack of clarity. The prefrontal cortex doesn't function properly.

Chris Scott: So that's another... It's a double whammy at that point. Actually, it's probably a triple, quadruple, quintuple whammy, because there are other things going on. Dysregulation of your stress hormones. So people who are drinking or using drugs have often imbalances with cortisol, adrenaline, even on a neurotransmitter level, you have too much glutamate. So that's more brain electrical activity, which it would seem I haven't... I'm not a researcher, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that people with an excess of glutamate and a deficiency in GABA, GABA being the calming neurotransmitter, would be more likely to act impulsively.

Chris Scott: So everyone knows, who's been a drinker, the feeling of being shaky or being frenetic. And that seems to be related to actions that can be impulsive, that are taken in an effort to try to distract from that unpleasant, manic state. Or just doing things because your mind is like a pinball in a box car, I think someone said recently. Maybe it was [inaudible 00:08:06] I can't recall. Old saying. But your brain is just on fire, and so you just need to do something, and it's not always the best thing. For some people it could be eating. For other people could just be drinking more or taking more of the drugs. For other people it could be acting out sexually and inappropriately, doing all sorts of things. So there's a wide variety of manifestations of impulsive behavior.

Chris Scott: And I can recall when I worked in New York, which was my old stomping ground, and it's always funny to go back there. And I have a zen now, and I've done yoga and meditation. And I read books before bed. I get seven to nine hours of sleep most of the time. I try to average eight. It's probably more like seven recently. But I'm in a much different mind space, and my physiology is so different, and I have no interest in immersing myself in the toxic alcohol culture. It's such a noisy place compared to where I live now, here in Savannah. My blood pressure always comes down when I'm here, when I return here.

Chris Scott: But when I go there, I start thinking of some of the things that I did that seem insane. And I recall sitting in my office in New York, and there was a Wendy's in the basement floor. We were on the 30th floor. And if I had bad enough withdrawal, my hands are shaking, and I'm trying to do spreadsheets at my desk, my boss was yelling or whatever. And I remember reaching the point frequently, I would say, "I can't take this." It was too early to justify drinking at that time, but that's what I really wanted was to have a drink.

Chris Scott: But my best outlet for my impulsive energy was to take the elevator to the basement of the building, go into Wendy's, and order a, I don't know, egg sausage thing, biscuit thing, or maybe if I'd missed that, I would get some ridiculous fast food, cheeseburger situation with fries, and always a Diet Coke. I was drinking Diet Cokes throughout the day, which in retrospect is appalling. But I would do that. I would have the fried potatoes and the greasy meat or eggs or whatever, and the carbs, the processed carbs and all the grease.

Chris Scott: And that would just, it would calm down my system for a minute. I didn't realize any of the things that I just said were going on. I just thought I was defective or that I was stupid or that I was immoral, that I couldn't handle myself, and I had to go down... And I would literally sit in the corner. I remember once I had colleagues that would be walking somewhere, they'd probably gone to have a meeting at some healthy breakfast place. And they were returning, and I was sitting in this Wendy's alone, and I was wearing my suit. And I saw them coming. I ducked under the table because I didn't want them to see me stuffing my face with Wendy's, for no reason, alone. So yeah, that was embarrassing.

Chris Scott: So you said that you had been stung by a bee earlier, which is never fun. And I recounted the time actually during early recovery, when I was still rebalancing and not quite in my right mind. And I was impulsive in certain ways for weeks or maybe months after I quit drinking. And I recall there was a wasps' nest in the apartment that I lived in, in Atlanta. And I did something that I wouldn't do now, although it was comical in retrospect. And I had a tennis racket, and I just approached the wasps' nest with the tennis racket, and just bam, bam. All of a sudden, there's 15 wasps flying around. I felt like Luke Skywalker, just killing these wasps. It's a miracle I didn't get stung. I probably killed 15 wasps.

Chris Scott: But I had so much pent up energy, and I felt so impulsive, that it seemed like the obvious solution, rather than ask my roommate if we can carefully try to throw this thing out the window, which is where it was. I think I dented the molding with the tennis... Probably messed up my tennis racket, trying to kill this thing. We could have more calmly removed it or trapped it in a bag and sealed it. But I wanted to go toe to toe with all these wasps. And it's dumb in retrospect, but that was my mind state at the time.

Chris Scott: And so, we don't often examine what state of mind we're in, either in a short term or a long term sense. I know that I didn't back when I was drinking or with early recovery. I just always took for granted that if I felt a certain way, then that's just the way I was. And I never looked into the biochemical cues or potential solutions, which maybe we can leave for next time, to rewire yourself out of that mind state, which I bumbled into unintentionally for the most part. And the big part of it was nutrient repair, but also things like yoga and meditation and getting really good sleep for a long time.

Matt Finch: Yeah. It's a negative downward spiral feedback loop as well, with the impulsivity and addiction. For some people, maybe they get addicted to a prescription medicine or something, but they were never impulsive before. Start taking a pain medicine, like a narcotic opioid pain medicine. A couple months later, they find out they're not just physically hooked, but psychologically hooked. Then all of a sudden, they're also struggling with trying to quit impulsivity, compulsivity. So it can totally destroy people's self-regulation.

Matt Finch: More often, in my case for sure, I got addicted to substances because of my impulsivity, because of my high sensation seeking trait. I would invest more time, energy, and put myself into more and more dangerous situations, to try to get some type of a high sensation payoff. So that was a big part of the impulsivity. ADHD and impulsivity are basically married. That's the biggest thing about ADHD, is your prefrontal cortex is just not centered, not stabilized. And you're just fidgety and can't sit still. And that was me all growing up, just ADHD. I would cut people off when talking, getting really excited. I was extremely impatient.

Matt Finch: My family and friends, they used to make fun of me and sometimes they'd get pissed off. Sometimes it was lighthearted making fun of me, other times it was getting pissed off because I was so impatient. I was so impatient, it was ridiculous. My severe hypoglycemia exacerbated that impatience big time. Like you, I didn't know about the biochemical things going on. I didn't know that you could have a growth mindset.

Matt Finch: I was angry at God a lot for giving me what I felt was a shitty hand for life. And I would just list off all these defects that I had. There were so many, and I was angry at God because of those... "How come this, that?" And I was pissed off at the world. I didn't think things were fair. I was just really like, "Poor me, poor me." Pour me another drink. Pour me another beer. Pop another bunch of pills. Do some other drugs. And yeah, like you were saying, meditation, yoga. In part two, we can talk all about the neurotransmitters and therapies.

Matt Finch: But I think a lot of people are resonating with this big time right now, where it's they've got this finite amount of self control per day. And maybe people can do good for a while, a day, a two days, a week. Say somebody quits drinking, and they're doing good for a week. But then they have to make all these tough decisions, get through all these challenges. And then one day, their self control just runs out. They get in a big argument with their wife or husband, and things are really bad. They had a shitty day at work. All of a sudden, now their self control's depleted. They have none left. They go out to dinner with a friend, one of their old drinking buddies. And they're like, "Come on, you can have one glass of red wine. Come on. You can just drink one." The self-control, the willpower, the ego's dead for that point. You just have no protection. Then all of a sudden you drink.

Matt Finch: So like that Wikipedia page, I can't wait. We'll read more on the next episode, but definitely wanted to mention bipolar. Bipolar disorder and impulsivity addiction, like we said, and ADHD, those are three that are just married to impulsivity, compulsivity, and they all exacerbate each other. Then it becomes, which came first, the chicken or the egg? Did the impulsiveness come first? There's even impulsive... There's a new scale that I found too, a new online assessment. You know how much I love assessments. There's a new assessment that I found. Well, I'm not sure if it's new, but it's new to me, on impulsivity. You can actually score yourself, and there's even an impulsivity disorder in the [DSM5 00:17:15]. So this is huge.

Matt Finch: When you look at just America, many other countries too, the UK, Australia, so many people, alcohol addictions. I was just looking... Drug addictions. I was just looking at statistics. In the past, I think it was 10 years, it showed state by state in the US, the increases in alcohol related deaths. And most states were more than 100% increase in just alcohol related deaths. Some of the states were almost 300% increase. North Dakota, South Dakota, Missouri, Wyoming, I think were some of the highest ones.

Matt Finch: That book that I just read recently by Dr. Anna Lembki, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, that's what's making it so hard for so many of us. We've got our smartphones, we've got our laptops, our desktops, we got our smart TVs and more, all sorts of different gidgets and gadgets, tings, bings, rings, alerts going off, text messages, emails.

Matt Finch: So all these things are competing for our attention. And a lot of these things can debilitate, decrease our self control, our willpower for the day. So the more of these things that we do, and the less we're conscious and intentional about conserving our energy and our focus, likely the more impulsive we're going to be. People trying to quit drugs or alcohol, if they quit, getting through post-acute withdrawal... My guess is this. Then I'll let you that you talk on this, Chris. What do you think about this relationship? The more impulsivity a person has, the more likely they are to relapse during the post-acute withdrawal phase. So if somebody's a 99 on the scale of impulsivity, good luck getting all the way through the post-acute withdrawal process if that's going to take a while. And the less impulsive somebody is, probably the less difficult to make it through.

Chris Scott: Sure. But I would add a caveat, which is it's important not to define yourself by your worst state. And so, at my worst, I was the most impulsive person I knew, especially when it came to drinking. When I told my family and friends that I needed to quit, my parents drove several hours to see me, and within an hour or two, I was at a bar, drinking. And that's so not me.

Matt Finch: Wow.

Chris Scott: That's not my character. And they were panicked because they didn't know where I was. I disappeared. I lost my sense of time. I can't say I was having a great time, but I don't really recall it, to be honest. It was a blur. But I was having apparently the kind of time where I had no concern with time. And that is so not me. I know that's not my best self. That's not my true self.

Chris Scott: So I don't want people to confuse their worst states that are caused by a complex array of biochemical and psychological, social, and spiritual factors with who they actually are. So yeah, I was extremely impulsive. I might not have been as impulsive as other people, interestingly, except when it came to alcohol, in other ways, in most other ways, in high school and college. I think that's an interesting thing with you and I, where we have different stories in that regard, because for me, it was like alcohol was the one thing... It was my kryptonite that was holding me back from being a really high performer in a bunch of things. And yet it really did hold me back, and it almost killed me in my 20s. And I get to detox and rehab, and they're telling me I have the liver of an old man. And I'm just... And my brain is probably a disaster, and I have one of the worst cases of alcohol addiction that they've seen in someone my age.

Chris Scott: And so, it was a really odd thing for me to have to deal with, knowing that I had typically been, except for the alcohol, pretty centered, pretty motivated, pretty successful in things that I decided to do, and pretty not impulsive. Not really taken in by the allure of various things. I didn't really misbehave or party too much in high school. I did in college, but that was an alcohol thing. And I wasn't, even when I was blackout drunk, I somehow wasn't getting in trouble because I just didn't have the desire to do ridiculous stuff. Now, did I do ridiculous stuff? I'm sure. Do I remember all of it? Probably not. Would I look back and be appalled? I'm sure.

Chris Scott: But then again, I wouldn't be appalled because I don't see any value in castigating ourselves in retrospect. It's all just part of the story. It's part of the journey, it's part of the adventure. And if you emerged, if you had close calls and you emerged and you're still alive, then you have to be grateful.

Chris Scott: And that actually leads to something else I wanted to say, because I touched on some of my speculative, hypothetical biochemical pathways with impulsivity and addiction. We know that it's both a precondition and a result of addiction. So if you go into addiction impulsive, you're probably going to come out more impulsive. And if you go into addiction not being inherently impulsive, except maybe with that particular substance, like I did, you're going to come out potentially generally impulsive, like I did. So it's an interesting relationship.

Chris Scott: But psychologically, I'm trying to think, what were the psychological characteristics that I displayed that may have heightened my impulsivity during my drinking years? And maybe during post-acute withdrawal as well. And I'm thinking things like an absence of compassion towards myself, being really hard on myself, made me psychologically desire an outlet or a dopamine release, to the extent that you feel like you're in some malevolent universe where you can't get what you want. You're going to settle for quick wins, short term pleasure boosts, and then you end up doing impulsive things.

Chris Scott: A lack of gratitude as well. And gratitude is a word, I found it to be woo-woo back in my drinking years. I'd hear yogis talking about gratitude, and I'd be like, "They have too much time on their hands. Get back to work, whatever." Gratitude's extremely important. And I think it's relevant here because if you can't be... And this is very common, and I have to continually remind myself on a daily basis to be grateful for what I have. But if you're incapable of being happy with who you are and what you do have, rather than focusing on what you don't have and on what you're not, then you're going to... Well, you could have a variety of responses, but you could be overcome with that defeatist mentality, where you're focusing on what you don't have and attributes or things, physical things, or relationships that you don't have. And you think, "Oh, to hell with all of it, and I'm going to go get ice cream or alcohol or risky sex," or whatever it is, heroin. And I think that there is a lack of gratitude there.

Chris Scott: And so now every morning, I think of three things I'm grateful for as soon as I wake up, and it really colors the rest of my day. I have a lot of my private clients do that as well. And it's a good antidote for anxiety, just to think of the things, focus on the things they're grateful for. As Tony Robbins says, and I've said this a million times and repeated it in a million times, we feel what we focus on. So if we're focusing on an abyss or on an absence, then we're going to have a desire to fill ourselves with whatever it is we don't have or with whatever it is that we can obtain really quickly to make us feel better about not having it.

Chris Scott: So I think gratitude is relevant there as well. And then there are other things such as trying to form a space between... This is actually from a yogi book that I can't pronounce his name [inaudible 00:24:54] book I'm reading, but trying to have a space in between you, who you are, which is not your body, it's not your brain with racing thoughts, it is an eternal entity, consciousness. And we can say this without being too woo-woo. But you can think of yourself, all right. So I am a being, I am... If you identify with your consciousness, you can create a space between that and your racing thoughts, on your aching or throbbing or otherwise hyperactive, manic body, body/brain system. And in that space, there is room to free yourself a bit. I think free will probably resides in that space.

Chris Scott: And you can look at yourself in the third person, not in a scary depersonalized way, like someone who's too high and they see them... there's third person [crosstalk 00:25:41] thoughts, but in a calming way. And you can start analyzing how am I feeling right now? And why am I feeling that way? Is it situational? Is it biochemical? What's the state of my body? Why is my mind racing? And calm things down and try to assess things rationally. I think logic can actually be of use if we're trying to determine our own best course of action.

Chris Scott: Everything we do is a trade off, and there's a layer of free will in everything we do. But if we don't exercise it, and a lot of us have strong dopamine laced neural pathways associated with various activities, if we are in a habit of not exercising our logic or free will, or gratitude or self compassion or compassion for other people, then we're just going to be automatons, and we're going to be biological soup that goes towards what it wants, like two magnets coming together. But there is that space in which there is free will, and there are methods by which to increase that space.

Chris Scott: So I don't know that I just gave an effective vision for someone or strategy for how to utilize that, but I think as we mentioned in the beginning, meditation, yoga, gratitude, these are really good psychological or psycho biological methods for trying to increase your free will.

Matt Finch: Right on. And I know you got to go in a few minutes here, so we'll just end with this. That number one, this is the part one of the session. Tune in to part two of this. Before we leave, I'll say that impulsivity, one of the main reasons I was impulsive for so many decades, actually, I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin. And I didn't feel comfortable in my own mind, my own thoughts, just what you were saying right there. And it was only when I started to ascend levels of consciousness and be able to not just be an automaton, I love that word for it, where you're just going through the motions, and all these things happen. And you're just living in unconscious, reactionary, chronic stress mode of living, high impulsivity, automaton, self hypnosis.

Matt Finch: So you can break out of the self-hypnosis. You can break out of the impulsivity trait, habit, consequence of addiction, whatever, and you can become much more present, much more confident, centered, extremely grateful and comfortable and joyous and ecstatic in your own skin, in your own mind, especially knowing that we're not the body or the mind. We are the eternal consciousness that was never born, can never die, energy, light. Photon energy can't be destroyed. Energy can only be changed in some way.

Matt Finch: So here we are, these cool characters in this wonderful simulation, the consciousness controlling the mind and the body, and we're all going around. And it's a fun path to be on. Meditation [foreign language 00:28:53] Tai Chi, deep tissue massage. And we're going to talk about all sorts of other things in part two. Neurofeedback training, certain essential oils and combinations, and many other ways that you can actually repair this impulsivity that continues to make your life either get out of control, or maybe you'll get some success, and then you'll slip back on the drinking or drugs due to impulsivity, at least in part, maybe in large part. And so, thanks so much for joining us. We love you guys so much, and we'll see you next time.

Author

  • Chris Scott founded Fit Recovery in 2014 to help people from around the world dominate alcohol dependence and rebuild their lives from scratch. A former investment banker, he recovered from alcohol dependence using cutting-edge methods that integrate nutrition, physiology, and behavioral change. Today, Chris is an Alcohol Recovery Coach and the creator of an online course called Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0.

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