Outbursts of Explosive Rage: What Causes Them and How Can They Be Prevented?

Michael Richards' recent meltdown in a West Hollywood comedy club and Mel Gibson's tirade during a DUI arrest has many people wondering: What causes sudden attacks of rage like these and how can we protect ourselves from losing control?

A study released by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) released this summer may hold a clue to preventing anger attacks such as the one exhibited by Richards. The study reported that as many as 7.3 percent of American adults — 11.5 million to 16 million people — may be affected by intermittent explosive disorder, or IED, which they defined as multiple outbursts grossly out of proportion to the situation.

Those afflicted by IED may lose control and break objects, or attack or threaten to harm others. This disorder may also be the cause of some forms of road rage, temper outbursts and even spousal abuse.

Psychology Today notes that individuals affected by IED might describe their episodes as "spells" or "attacks," but points out that some clinicians believe that IED is only a symptom of other diagnoses and not in fact a disorder on its own.

Mental disorders are much more common than you might have expected.

According to the NIMH, mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada for ages 15 to 44, and more than one in four adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in any given year.

Was Richards' outburst caused simply by too much stress? Was there a mental health component to his tirade? Only a complete medical and psychiatric evaluation will tell for sure. To get more insight on this, we interviewed Dr. Diego Coira, chairman of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

Here are his responses to some of our questions:

What are some of the psychological factors that would make people like Michael Richards lose control?

There are biological, psychological and social factors that influence behavior such as rage. Biological factors such as temperament play a role in human behavior. Some individuals are genetically predisposed to have aggressive tendencies. This aggressive behavior is usually channeled in socially acceptable ways. For example, people may take risks in stock investments, become racecar drivers or football players. Some of the psychological factors that affect human behavior are the result of early attachment to parental figures and the resolution of conflict early in life. For example, an individual that was exposed to violence in childhood will be more prone in stressful situations to go into a rage. Social factors are also important. There are consequences for one's behavior and usually an individual will control their anger before they become enraged. For an individual to lose control and go into a rage, usually there is a combination of temperament, learned behavior and a high level of stress and frustration.

What are the dangers of rage?

Rage is dangerous because as a person loses control, he can say things that he normally would suppress and even become violent. A moment of losing control can change one's life forever. You can lose your job, your relationships, or can wind up in jail. The consequences for the individual can also be financial loss and psychological injury. The consequences for the victim are usually worse and can include long-lasting psychological scars and/or physical trauma. If an individual has an episode of rage, he should seek psychological help. If this problem is not addressed with professional assistance, it may develop into a pattern of self-destruction.

When people have an emotional meltdown they tend to say many inappropriate things — Yet after the fact many reflect that it is not who they really are? Truth or fiction?

Some people will not like the consequences of their behavior and for that reason will try to retract their actions by offering an apology. But, in fact, the behavior actually reflects who they really are and are expressing feelings that are usually suppressed. Others will sincerely regret what was said or done and will carry the guilt for some time. In both cases, the individual's life will be changed after an episode of rage. Some people will learn and change their behavior; others will continue with their behavior especially if the consequences are benign. For those that have multiple episodes of rage, it will be more difficult to explain that they did not mean what was said or done.

Dr. Manny Alvarez is the managing editor of health news at FOXNews.com, and is a regular medical contributor on the FOX News Channel. He is chairman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. Additionally, Alvarez is Adjunct Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at New York University School of Medicine in New York City.