Causes & Effects of Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of IED and get help for your child, teen, or young adult.

Understanding IED

Learn about IED

When individuals have intermittent explosive disorder (IED), they will display openly aggressive behaviors and have angry verbal outbursts that are grossly out of proportion to the situation at hand. Those with this disorder may attack others or personal property, causing bodily harm to themselves or others. Furthermore, these behaviors occur without any consideration of the possible implications. Symptoms of this condition typically occur at a minimum of two times per week over the course of three months and, if not properly treated, can cause a great deal of disruption in a person’s life.

In most cases, IED develops in children and adolescents. However, it is possible for some symptoms to carry over into adulthood if left untreated. In order to avoid the development of the negative effects that can occur as a result of having untreated intermittent explosive disorder, treatment must be sought from a mental health professional as soon as possible. The sooner treatment is sought for IED, the better chance an individual has for leading a happy and productive life.


IED statistics

The prevalence rate of intermittent explosive disorder among Americans is said to be 3%. Individuals suffering from this mental health condition are also believed to frequently meet criteria for the diagnosis of another mental illness as well. More males are diagnosed with IED than females, and it has been concluded that one in twelve adolescents are affected by intermittent explosive disorder, making it one of the most common mental illnesses diagnosed in young people.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for IED

Since the exact cause of intermittent explosive disorder is unknown, it is thought to be a combination of a number of different factors. The following are possible explanations and additional risk factors:

Genetic: It is believed that intermittent explosive disorder has a genetic component to it. Individuals who have a biological parent with a history of IED are said to have a higher likelihood of eventually displaying symptoms at some point in their lives. Because of this, it can be concluded that intermittent explosive disorder can be inherited.

Physical: Researchers in the field of neurobiology have determined that there may be differences in the way in which serotonin, which is a chemical messenger in the brain, works in people with this disorder. Additionally, it has been concluded that the brain in those with IED is structured differently and may explain why individuals with IED process information and behave in the manner that they do. This is because the areas of the brain that are responsible for regulating impulses, eliciting anger responses to outside stimuli, and controlling motor function are altered.

Environmental: Many individuals who have developed this disorder grew up in households where explosive anger and physical and verbal abuse were common. Being exposed to violent behavior like this at an early age makes it more likely that individuals will display these types of behaviors when they grow up.

Risk Factors:

  • Being male
  • Family history of IED or another mental health condition
  • History of substance abuse
  • Being in one’s teens or early 20s
  • Having certain medical conditions
  • Personal history of brain trauma
  • Exposure to trauma, abuse, or neglect
  • Witnessing aggressive or violent behaviors at a young age

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of IED

There are a number of behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial symptoms that are present in a person with IED. Additionally, the episodes associated with this disorder tend to last less than 30 minutes and can either occur in clusters or be separated by weeks, or even months, of non-aggression. Examples of symptoms can include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Verbal defiance
  • Angry outbursts
  • Instigative behavior towards others
  • Physical aggression towards others
  • Harming animals
  • Damaging property
  • Engaging in self-harming behaviors

Physical symptoms:

  • Physical injuries as a result of aggressive outbursts
  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Numbness
  • Muscle tension
  • Tingling
  • Tight feeling in one’s chest

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Poor impulse control
  • Racing thoughts
  • Hearing echoes

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feeling as if one is going to lose control at a moment’s notice
  • Agitation
  • Feelings of shame
  • Rage
  • Emotional detachment
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt or remorse
  • Low tolerance for frustration


Effects of IED

The symptoms of IED can infringe upon a person’s life in several ways if appropriate treatment is not sought. With the potential of causing life-changing consequences, the following detrimental effects are known to occur when symptoms of intermittent explosive disorder persist:

  • Development of another mental health condition
  • Poor peer interactions
  • Social withdrawal / isolation
  • Increased conflict with others
  • Academic failure
  • Disciplinary action at school
  • Engaging in criminal activity
  • Interaction with law enforcement
  • Use or abuse of substances
  • Self-injury
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Suicide attempts

Co-Occurring Disorders

IED and co-occurring disorders

When an individual is suffering from intermittent explosive disorder, it is possible for that same person to meet diagnostic criteria for another mental health condition. In some cases, certain mental health disorders can trigger symptoms of another disorder. Additionally, symptoms of some mental health conditions can overlap those of other disorders and lead to the diagnosis of an additional mental health condition. The following mental illnesses are known to occur alongside intermittent explosive disorder:

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

I feel so much happier and healthier after getting help at Millcreek of Pontotoc.

– A former patient