December 12, 2011

Angry drivers: Do you have 'intermittent explosive disorder'?

Daily Briefing

Traffic gridlock and "incompetent driving" can upset many motorists, but when drivers experience road rage—and take out their anger on others—it could signal a deeper emotional problem.

According to NPR's "Shots," road rage may prompt some drivers to honk, curse, make obscene gestures, or wave their fists in the air. However, it also can manifest as intentional harm or damage to others—like purposely causing a collision. One survey by the AutoVantage road club found that drivers in Washington, D.C., were four times more likely to "drive into [someone] on purpose than anywhere else on the planet," an official said.

According to University of Chicago psychiatrist Emil Coccaro, road rage can be a symptom of intermittent explosive disorder (IED), which affects up to 6% of the U.S. population. People with IED have short fuses and often respond aggressively to unwanted situations. For example, they may have temper tantrums, throw objects, or hit another person.

Although the underlying causes vary based on the patient, Coccaro says people with IED underproduce serotonin, a hormone known to make us happy, and overproduce brain chemicals that promote aggression. He notes that IED can be treated with antidepressants and mood stabilizers, as well as through cognitive therapy and the use of coping techniques (Neighmond, "Shots," NPR, 12/12). 

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