The Explosive Personality and Intermittent Explosive Disorder

Some people act like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. They veer from friendly to aggressive, getting angry over meaningless things, to the point of bursting into inexplicable fits of rage. You may well know someone like this. You can find out here what may lie behind their behavior.
The Explosive Personality and Intermittent Explosive Disorder
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 26 October, 2022

Aggressiveness has many forms and not all of them are linked to physical and instrumental violence. In fact, many people simply burst into fits of anger without really knowing why. They’re individuals with poor impulse control. They might be work colleagues or even family members. Whoever they are, they’re complex and often even hostile presences.

The term intermittent explosive disorder (IED) may not be familiar to you. However, statistical data indicates that this condition has an incidence of seven percent in the population. The figure is high because, as a rule, it appears together with clinical realities such as borderline personality disorder or bipolar disorder. It’s also prevalent in people who consume addictive substances.

This behavioral aggressiveness is often assumed to be simply a type of character. For example, you might tell yourself that “John’s always had problems controlling his impulses, just like his father”, or “Elena has always been really extreme in her reactions”. In effect, you might attribute their behavior to their way of being when, in fact, it’s due to a medical condition. This can be dangerous.

Intermittent explosive disorder is a psychological condition that causes great suffering in the environment. It also affects the sufferer, who can’t control their anger outbursts and is trapped in deep feelings of guilt and sadness. Therefore, being able to recognize the characteristics of this condition can be really useful.

Intermittent explosive disorder is persistent and stable over time. The deterioration it produces in the patient’s life is immense.

Angry and screaming man who shows explosive personality
Some people explode in unpredictable fits of anger, screaming, and even violence. These are situations that can’t be prevented.

Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)

An explosive personality can manifest itself in childhood. However, it’s around the age of 14 when it becomes apparent. In these cases, the affected adolescents exhibit serious interpersonal difficulties and extremely poor social skills. It’s not simply a way of being or a temperamental or character trait.

People who explode every so often with maladjusted and aggressive behaviors will usually be suffering from intermittent explosive disorder (IED). The DSM 5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) classifies it within the section of impulse control disorders. Although it’s true that some social relationships can cause certain problems or challenges, the conflict with those who suffer from this psychiatric condition is constant.

It happens in families when there’s a child who’s consistently demonstrated great aggressiveness. It’s also evident in those who live with intimidating partners who often resort to physical or verbal violence. Without a doubt, these are highly problematic and also dangerous individuals. Both for themselves and others.

Let’s find out how to identify the explosive personality.

Behind people who suffer from an intermittent explosive disorder there may lie a childhood trauma.

1. Changeable people who seem to have multiple personalities

Explosive personality disorder has nothing to do with dissociative identity disorder. In other words, a sufferer doesn’t have multiple personalities (although it’s almost the case). Indeed, if there’s one thing that’s particularly striking, it’s that these people continuously change their way of being and acting. They’re real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde characters. They can be kind at one moment and threatening at the next.

This behavioral uncertainty and not knowing how they may react results in permanent anguish, both for them and those in their environment.

2. Outbursts of anger arise with no clear trigger

Research conducted by the University of Chicago indicated that there aren’t always clear triggers for reactions of anger, aggressiveness, and violence. In fact, the study claims that this impulsive behavior isn’t premeditated, but is due to neurological factors.

It’s often speculated that intermittent explosive disorder (IED) may be related to early childhood trauma and attachment problems.

father and son showing an explosive personality
Yelling, insults, and contempt are common in explosive personalities.

3. Constant need to be in control

The explosive personality feels, needs, and is obsessed with being in control of every situation. It’s how they show others that they’re capable and competent. However, the more they try to show resolve, the more their patience fails and they relapse into impulsiveness.

The frustration they experience when they see that everything is escaping their grasp and control increases their aggressiveness even more. Behavioral and verbal violence becomes a mechanism of catharsis with which they release their negativity.

It should be noted, however, that the violence shown by the explosive personality isn’t instrumental. In other words, they don’t seek to harm, but these reactions are the product of their altered state of mind.

Those with intermittent explosive disorder can explode in a fit of rage for the most inexplicable situations. For instance, noticing that there’s none of their favorite drink left in the store or thinking that someone’s looking at them too much on the street.

4. Explosive personality and WhatsApp communication

We know that communication with an individual defined by an explosive personality is both complex and violent. However, at present, and given that interactions frequently take place on the digital plane, it’s important to refer to this method of communication. As a matter of fact, curious though it may seem to us, this is where intermittent explosive disorder is most visible.

The person with this condition exhibits chaotic, erratic, changing, and threatening methods of interaction. For instance, they might send friendly messages, but if they don’t receive immediate responses they lose patience and start insulting the messenger. They might also send disturbing audio messages with comments that the recipient doesn’t fully understand.

How is IED treated?

Intermittent explosive disorder is addressed based on the individual diagnosis of each patient. As we mentioned earlier, this condition usually appears together with bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, or is associated with substance addiction.

Most of the time, these people experience deep depression and family upheaval and are often unable to keep their jobs. In these cases, cognitive behavioral therapy can be useful to reduce their outbursts of anger and increase control over their behavior.

The main objective is to get them to acquire skills to regulate their emotions and behavior, thus improving their skills to relate to others.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Costa AM, Medeiros GC, Redden S, Grant JE, Tavares H, Seger L. Cognitive-behavioral group therapy for intermittent explosive disorder: description and preliminary analysis. Braz J Psychiatry. 2018 Jul-Sep;40(3):316-319. doi:10.1590/1516-4446-2017-2262
  • Cremers H, Lee R, Keedy S, Phan KL, Coccaro E. Effects of Escitalopram Administration on Face Processing in Intermittent Explosive Disorder: An fMRI Study. Neuropsychopharmacology. 2016 Jan;41(2):590-597. doi:10.1038/npp.2015.187
  • Montalvo-Ortiz JL, Zhang H, Chen C, Liu C, Coccaro EF. Genome-Wide DNA Methylation Changes Associated with Intermittent Explosive Disorder: A Gene-Based Functional Enrichment Analysis. Int J Neuropsychopharmacol. 2018 Jan 1;21(1):12-20. doi:10.1093/ijnp/pyx087
  • Nickerson A, Aderka IM, Bryant RA, Hofmann SG. The relationship between childhood exposure to trauma and intermittent explosive disorder. Psychiatry Res. 2012 May 15;197(1-2):128-134. doi:10.1016/j.psychres.2012.01.012

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.