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Sharp Health News

Agitation: more than just being upset

Nov. 6, 2017


We all occasionally feel annoyed, edgy or antsy. However, some people experience agitation — a greater sense of unease that can seriously affect every aspect of their lives. Agitation brings about severe distress and can negatively affect your overall health.

“Unlike simple irritation or nervousness, agitation is a state of extreme arousal that is typically characterized by feelings of tension, excitement, hostility and confusion,” says Lindsay Kramer, a marriage and family therapist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Agitation can lead to poor impulse control and aggression, whereas irritation is a state of low-level anger that does not involve the intensity of physiological arousal that occurs with agitation.”

According to Kramer, agitation can negatively affect relationships, jobs or careers, and physical health. It can build slowly or appear suddenly, and may be accompanied by a variety of involuntary behaviors, such as pacing, wringing hands, clenching fists, excess movement and outbursts. It is often a by-product of a mood disorder or other condition — such as depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder — and can be triggered by stressful or traumatic events.

If agitation escalates, a person may lash out or become combative, and it could lead to an agitation crisis. “Agitation becomes a crisis when a person is in danger of losing control and harming themselves or others,” Kramer says.

She recommends the following ways you can help a loved one experiencing an agitation crisis:

  • If the person is a danger to themselves or others, call 911 to get help.
  • Contact one of their trusted medical or mental health providers.
  • Stay with the agitated person and help make the environment safe by removing objects that could cause harm and decreasing stimuli such as lights or noises.
  • Listen to them, remind them to breathe deeply, use a calm voice, put on soft music or take a long walk together to help them relax and release energy until help arrives.

“Agitation can be prevented and treated,” Kramer says. “An evaluation and diagnosis of the underlying medical and mental health condition is essential for the proper treatment and reduction of agitation.”

There are fast-acting medications that can help calm a person quickly when in an agitated state or crisis. Aside from as-needed medications, therapy is an important part of one's treatment to learn skills to relax and self-soothe, and to proactively identify and reduce stressors that may increase agitation.

Finally, having proper support is also critical. It is important for a person experiencing agitation to know who to contact — a loved one or care provider — in a time of need.

Talk with your doctor if you or a loved one experience agitation or have other mental health concerns. Learn more about related programs at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.

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