Intermittent Explosive Disorder Causes & Effects

The signs, symptoms, and effects of IED can look different for each person impacted. Learning about intermittent explosive disorder is one of the first steps toward healing.

Understanding IED

Learn about intermittent explosive disorder

Intermittent explosive disorder, also known as IED, is a type of impulse-control disorder that causes those suffering from it to act out in sudden, unwarranted aggressive outbursts. Individuals who suffer from intermittent explosive disorder struggle to control their impulses and, as a result, engage in recurrent outbursts of aggressive behaviors. These aggressive behaviors can include both verbal aggression and physical aggression. Some people with IED who engage in physical aggression will act out in ways that cause physical harm to property, animals, or other people, while others will act out in physically aggressive ways that do not result in injury or harm. According to the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the cornerstone feature of this disorder lies in the fact that people with IED act in these ways in response to an external stressor that would not normally elicit such a drastic response. These behaviors are not premediated, rarely last for a period of time longer than 30 minutes, and usually result in feelings of remorse following the aggressive outburst. Additionally, these outbursts do not occur due to an individual’s intention of achieving a specific objective like intimidation or power.

The presence of the behaviors associated with IED can cause monumental strife in the lives of those afflicted by this disorder, as well as in the lives of those around them. Fortunately, there are treatment options available for IED that can help individuals learn how to control their impulses, create appropriate and healthy responses to stressors, and ultimately overcome their symptoms.


Intermittent explosive disorder statistics

According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), approximately 2.7% of the American population suffers from intermittent explosive disorder. The APA also reports that IED tends to be more prevalent among younger individuals than it is in individuals, which the APA classifies as being individuals who are older than 50 years of age. Furthermore, the APA states that individuals who have a high school level of education or less more frequently exhibit symptoms of this disorder.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for intermittent explosive disorder

There are a number of causes and risk factors that are believed to play a role in the onset of intermittent explosive disorder. These factors are discussed briefly in the following:

Genetic: Research has shown that there are genetic influences at work in regards to the onset of IED. More specifically, studies that were conducted on twins demonstrated that impulsive aggression has a strong genetic influence. As a result, individuals who have first-degree relatives who suffer from intermittent explosive disorder are at a greater risk for experiencing symptoms of the disorder themselves as opposed to those who do not have a similar hereditary background.

Physical: Neurobiological research has proven that those suffering from IED have abnormal levels of serotonin in their brains. This research was confirmed by neuroimaging studies, which also demonstrated that, when presented with stimuli meant to induce feelings of anger, individuals with intermittent explosive disorder had a greater physical response in the amygdala than did individuals who do not suffer from IED.

Environmental: There are some environmental influences that can have an impact on an individual’s susceptibility to developing intermittent explosive disorder. According to the American Psychiatric Association, those influences can include experiencing trauma that is emotional or physical in nature at some point during the first two decades of an individual’s life.

Risk Factors:

  • Family history of intermittent explosive disorder or other types of disruptive, impulse-control, or conduct disorders
  • Personal history of antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, or disorders that have disruptive behaviors, such as oppositional defiant disorder, ADHD, or conduct disorder
  • Experiencing trauma
  • Suffering from physical, emotional, and/or sexual abuse
  • Being neglected

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of intermittent explosive disorder

The signs and symptoms that are displayed by individuals who are suffering from IED are predominantly behavioral in nature and may manifest in a number of ways. Examples of such behavioral symptoms, as well as additional cognitive and psychosocial symptoms, are listed in the following:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Frequent verbal arguments and fights
  • Physical aggression towards animals and/or other individuals
  • Unprovoked violent outbursts that may or may not result in physical harm or injury
  • Deliberately destroying objects or property

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Lack of impulse control

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Anger
  • Rage


Effects of intermittent explosive disorder

When the symptoms of IED remain untreated, individuals are at risk for experiencing a number of detrimental effects that can impact their everyday lives. Examples of such effects include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Loss of friends
  • Disturbed family relationships
  • Martial instability
  • Hindered academic performance
  • Being suspended or expelled from school
  • Hindered occupational performance
  • Being demoted at work
  • Losing one’s job / experiencing chronic unemployment
  • Legal problems (due to acting out behaviors against people and property)

Co-Occurring Disorders

Intermittent explosive disorder and co-occurring disorders

There are a number of disorders that are cited as co-occurring alongside intermittent explosive disorder. Examples of such disorders include the following:

  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
  • Conduct disorder
  • Oppositional defiant disorder
  • Depressive disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

I now am on the road to recovery because of the process groups and my personal therapist at Southcoast. Thank you for helping me get my life together. I am forever grateful!

– Anonymous Client
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