Psychomotor Agitation: What & Why You Need to Know

by | Aug 14, 2019

Our emotions express themselves physically. And there’s so much we can learn about ourselves by understanding and observing the mind/body connection. Psychomotor agitation is an example, so let’s discuss what we need to know and why we need to know it…

The term “psychomotor agitation” is classic shrink-speak. I’m thinking you know what it is from personal experience, even if the jargon doesn’t hit home.

Does this sound familiar? You’ve been looking forward to the rare opportunity of relaxing alone at home. But when the time comes you just can’t do it. Sure, you park it in your favorite chair – for two minutes. And then off you go about the house engaging in so much purposeless activity. Thing is, it always comes to this.

Ready to dig-in?

What is psychomotor agitation?

Psychomotor agitation (PA) is best described as purposeless – without intention – motions and restlessness. Another angle is restless activity inappropriate to context.

Does it ring a bell?

Now keep in mind, PA can present as a symptom of ailments such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, dementia, hyponatremia, and substance use and withdrawal. But we’re approaching it from the mood and anxiety disorder side of the fence. And that means PA is a physical manifestation of emotional and mental distress.

There it is, the mind/body connection.

In our world, PA can be associated with any diagnostic situation. You name it: major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, any anxiety disorder, and hypomanic and manic states of bipolarity. And I have to add that it can present as an unpleasant side effect of SSRI and SNRI antidepressant use as well as antipsychotics.

What does psychomotor agitation look like?

In describing what PA looks like, I’ll first refer you back to the “relaxing” scenario I shared in the opening. Still, let’s go ahead and do a list; though there’s no way I can include every presentation…

Inability to sit still, fidgeting, unresolvable tension, inability to find a comfortable position, intense irritability, pacing, hand-wringing, nail-biting, tugging at hair or clothing, finger and foot-tapping, moving objects around for no reason, abruptly starting and stopping tasks, making things up to do, changing clothing, rapid-fire talking.

Do you see the purposeless – without intention – and inappropriate to context factor?

How is psychomotor agitation treated?

why can't i relax

“Yeah, it’s time to kick back and relax.”

As we discuss the treatment of PA, let’s keep in mind our context: the mood and anxiety disorders, not Parkinson’s, dementia, etc.

If we accept the fact that our emotions express themselves physically, it follows that the primary cause of PA is mental tension and anxiety. How ’bout we call it mental distress.

In fact, PA presents in an effort to relieve that mental distress. So if that’s the case, anything we can do to lower the intensity of our thoughts and emotions will aid in managing PA.

By the way, are you curious as to what in our minds says, “Okay, this mental distress business is getting out of hand, so I’m flipping the switch on PA?” How does that happen? I mean, is it at an unconscious level? Is it protective? Hmmm.

Now, most of us know that even if we’re managing our circumstances well with, say, therapy, healthy lifestyle choices, or meds, distress – and PA – can spike in the face of unforeseen stressors. And, of course, we need to have strategies ready to respond to the alarm.

Why do we need to know about psychomotor agitation?

We’ve done a good job of covering the “what’s” of PA, but “Why do we need to know?” is a fair question. In my mind, the primary reason is simple: If we’re experiencing PA it’s an “official” component of our mood and anxiety circumstances – a part of us (like it or not). And that makes it our business to know and understand it.

Going back to the onset of my anxiety disorder, I wanted to gain insight into everything that was happening to me: “What’s going-on in my mind and body?!” Heck, I was more interested in that than how to secure relief.

And my take remains: “How can I manage something if I don’t know what it is?” Also, the “I don’t want to feel like a psycho-freak” factor still looms large.

Finally, understanding and observing PA, as with any symptom, provides a valuable heads-up. I described it in an article last year as rather a dashboard warning light thing. If we observe that PA is ramping-up (warning light on) we can be sure something’s cookin’ within. Only then can we become proactive and respond.

That’ll do it

Emotions expressing themselves physically – the mind/body connection. Just more evidence that our brains are miraculously wonderful, even when they’re seemingly working against us. Don’t you think?

Best part is, not only can we understand, treat, and manage phenomena like psychomotor agitation, we can use them to our benefit as a “heads-up” warning sign – a call to self-examination and relief.

Hey! If you found meaning in this piece, there are hundreds more Chipur mood and anxiety disorder-related titles awaiting your perusal. Please, dig-in.

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