Learning More About Intermittent Explosive Disorder Symptoms

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    Have you ever heard the phrase “loose cannon”? How about “hair-trigger temper”? Or “don’t poke the bear”?

    These are all phrases’ people can use to describe someone with intermittent explosive disorder symptoms.

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    What I often hear in my anger management counseling is something like, “He has explosive anger.”

    Intermittent explosive disorder (IED) is a term that most non-medical professionals are unfamiliar with. However, while most people don’t know the name, many of us have seen the behavior.

    Doesn’t intermittent explosive disorder sound much worse than anger management issues?

    It does to me. Yet they’re mostly the same thing, even though they can also look different.

    What Is Intermittent Explosive Disorder?

    Intermittent explosive disorder is the diagnostic term used in the DSM-5-TR, which is the manual used to diagnose mental health disorders. In other words, it’s the medical term for anger management problems.

    The DSM-5-TR classifies intermittent explosive disorder as an impulse control disorder. It appears as either verbal aggression (or physical) that reoccurs multiple times a week over at least a 3-month period of time. This kind of aggression is significantly disproportionate to the situations that may trigger it.

    Here’s how the Mayo Clinic describes the symptoms of Intermittent explosive disorder:

    Intermittent explosive disorder involves repeated, sudden episodes of impulsive, aggressive, violent behavior or angry verbal outbursts in which you react grossly out of proportion to the situation. Road rage, domestic abuse, throwing or breaking objects, or other temper tantrums may be signs of intermittent explosive disorder.

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    Here’s a good, simple description of intermittent explosive disorder:

    People with IED essentially “explode” into a rage despite a lack of apparent provocation or reason.

    Know anyone like this?

    If you do, you’ll know it.

    Intermittent explosive disorder symptoms are more significant than symptoms of anger management issues. A person can have anger management problems without having intermittent explosive disorder, but anyone with IED for sure has an anger management problem.

    How Intermittent Explosive Disorder Symptoms Are Different From Anger Management

    Why does everything seem to be going fine and then out of nowhere my husband explodes with anger?” -Suzanne

    With anger management it’s typically easier to identify a trigger for the anger, but this is often not the case with intermittent explosive disorder as Suzanne describes.

    Intermittent explosive disorder is anger management issues on steroids. Every symptom of typical anger management problems is multiplied and much more serious.

    Someone was telling me the other day that his adult son gets angry but it’s “controlled.”

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    While I would disagree that most anger expressions are ever “controlled,” some anger can appear controlled compared to typical intermittent explosive disorder symptoms.

    Here’s an example of how out of control IED can be,

    When we were first married my wife would burst into tears or become angry about something minor several times a week. Much of the time she would blame her emotional state on an event that I could not verify. At first these mood swings were short lived but as time passed the episodes would last a day or so. Then she started to become violent. The triggers for her violent rages ranged from minor misunderstandings to accusations that I was uncaring, unsupportive, unfaithful, etc. She would also become enraged by the things she said I was thinking. If I confided in her about my fears and misgivings she would ridicule me and call me weak. When I stopped sharing my feelings she would claim that I was withdrawing from her and neglecting her. All was fodder for her rage filled tirades. During her periods of rage, Laura would stand at one side of the room and vent her rage and condemnations at me. These events would last anywhere from four hours to a day and sometimes more. About a quarter of the time the children were at home. She never stopped demeaning me but when the girls got older she began to demean and berate me in front of them. In the last three years we were together, she would call the children in as though she was setting a stage to deliver her diatribe against me. She would call out to them, ‘Come in here, I want you to hear this!’ and when they entered the room she would deliver an impassioned speech about how I was a failure as a person and father.” -Donny

    Notice Donny’s repeated use of the word “rage” to describe his wife’s anger?

    Rage is a symptom intermittent explosive disorder.

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    Another descriptor that would be a symptom of IED is “uncontrollable anger.”

    Le me tell you about Jeff and Tony. I’m currently counseling both men for anger management.

    Jeff has typical anger management challenges. He gets stressed with his job and young kids. This comes out by his being short with everyone in the family. His wife describes him as being “moody” a lot. He will yell at her and their kids frequently. She says the kids avoid him, as does she, when he’s in “one of his moods.”

    Tony’s anger is similar to Jeff’s, but much more intense. In fact, a good description of Tony is “intense.” I’ve told him this too and he’s said others have told him the same thing. That intensity is a sign of the rage that lies right below the surface. And when that anger monster takes over – look out. Not only is the emotion incredibly strong, but it’s also unpredictable. The two of us can be discussing a topic and he seems fine, and then with the next word, boom, he’s yelling and very angry.

    How Do You Get Someone With IED To Get Help?

    Someone with intermittent explosive disorder typically has no choice but to get help eventually. They’re either court ordered to do so as a prerequisite for seeing their kids or required to so they can keep their job.

    A better question to ask is – how do you get them to get help before they’re in that much trouble?

    It’s hard. Even when everyone around them can see they need help, they refuse to see it and usually justify it.

    Please remember that no matter how badly you want them to change – none of us can make someone else change. They have to want to do it themselves.

    A tough truth, I know, especially when you love them and they greatly impact your life.

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    What you can do, however, is influence them.

    How do you do that?

    Here are 2 places to start:

    • Set boundaries on what behavior you will accept and what you won’t. This is not only good for you, but puts a consequence in place for continuing their behavior.

    • Insulate yourself from being verbally abused, and your kids if you have them. When your partner explodes, leave. Leave the room, house, hang-up the phone, don’t text back.

    What usually motivates people to change is fear losing something (you, their kids, etc.) or being exposed and humiliated.

    Hi I’ve been with my boyfriend nearly 3 years and it hasn’t been easy. I am aware of my faults and try to learn from them and move on but when it comes to my partner not so much. His anger can be frightening although he has never physically hurt me. He yells, clenches his teeth or might throw something when he is angry. When I tell him to stop yelling at me or can we discuss something without shouting it seems to get him more frustrated. I’ve never been a person to confront people but I’ve learned through my own self discovery that boundaries are important even if he agrees with them or not. It’s very difficult to keep the boundaries up as when I do hold a boundary he gets more angry and storms off so I usually am the one to contact him first to apologize for something I didn’t do and feel that it was all for nothing. I feel as though I’m at a brick wall at this stage. Most weekends are revolve around fighting and him walking out usually over something very trivial that others wouldn’t see as a big deal. I love him very much but I’m now beginning to feel is it all worth it? I still want to make it work but am I putting my energy into something that is out of my hands? I feel life is too short for this and I want to happy with him but I feel it’s not my job to fix him. Even if I did walk away I don’t think he would realize it was his doing or ever understand the impact it has on our relationship.” -Natalia

    Natalia’s taking the right approach, but it’s hard to stick with it and stay consistent. Yet being persistent and consistent are crucial for success in getting them to see they need to change.

    What To Take Away

    The symptoms of intermittent explosive disorder are pretty obvious. At least from afar and in someone else. They can be much harder to recognize, however, when you’re around them all the time and they’ve become normal behavior.

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    Remember these key points:

    • Do any of these descriptors fit? “Hair-trigger temper,” “don’t poke the bear,” “explosive anger.”

    • Here’s a simple symptom of IED – someone who “explodes” into a rage.

    • There’s often not an obvious trigger.

    • You can best influence them to get help by not accepting it anymore.

    Intermittent explosive disorder symptoms are forms of relationship abuse. And being in an abusive relationship has serious long-term negative effects. So, please get help for yourself if you need it, even if your partner won’t (yet).

    Know anyone who has intermittent explosive disorder symptoms? Please share with other readers what that looks like.

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