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Agitation: Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatments

Agitation is a feeling of aggravation or restlessness brought on by provocation or in some cases, little to no provocation. It can be a sign of an underlying medical or psychiatric condition.

It’s normal to feel agitated from time to time. For example, you might feel agitated in response to stress from work or school. But if you regularly experience agitation for no known reason, make an appointment with your doctor. You may have an underlying medical condition that requires treatment.

What causes agitation?

Agitation is a normal emotion experienced by most people at least once in their lives. In the majority of cases, it’s not cause for worry or concern. Common causes of agitation include:

  • work stress
  • school stress
  • feeling ill
  • burn out
  • peer pressure
  • grief

In some cases, medical conditions can cause agitation. These include:

  • anxiety or mood disorders, such as depression or bipolar disorder
  • conditions that cause hormonal imbalances, such as hypothyroidism
  • alcohol dependency or withdrawal
  • autism
  • neurological disorders (in rare cases, brain tumors)

If you regularly feel agitated for no apparent reason, make an appointment with your doctor. An underlying mental or physical health condition may be negatively affecting your mood. Your doctor can help identify the cause of your agitation and, if needed, prescribe treatment.

How are the causes of agitation diagnosed?

To identify the underlying cause of your agitation, your doctor will likely start by asking you questions about your medical history and lifestyle.

If they suspect that you have an underlying mental health condition, they may refer you to a mental health specialist for evaluation.

If they think that you have an underlying physical condition, they may conduct one or more diagnostic tests. For example, they may collect a sample of your blood to check for hormonal imbalances. They may also collect a sample of your urine or spinal fluid to check for abnormalities. In some cases, they may order a CT or MRI scan of your brain.

How are the causes of agitation treated?

Your doctor’s recommended treatment plan will depend on the underlying cause of your agitation.


To relieve agitation caused by stress, your doctor may recommend deep breathing exercises, yoga, or other meditative practices. Deep breathing and meditation can help restore your sense of calm. Exercising and participating in activities you enjoy can also reduce stress.

You should take steps to identify and limit your contact with things that cause you stress as well. For example, if you feel overwhelmed by your workload, discuss it with your supervisor or teacher.

Mental illness

If you’re diagnosed with an anxiety or mood disorder, your doctor may recommend medications, talk therapy, or a combination of both to treat it. During a typical therapy session, you will discuss your symptoms and develop strategies to cope with them.

Hormonal imbalances

If you’re diagnosed with a condition that affects your hormonal balance, your doctor may prescribe hormone replacement therapy or other medications to treat it. They may also refer you to a hormone specialist, known as an endocrinologist.

Brain tumor

If you’re diagnosed with a brain tumor, your recommended treatment plan will depend on its type, size, and location. In some cases, your doctor may recommend chemotherapy to shrink it. If it can be removed safely with surgery, they may refer you to a surgeon to perform the procedure. If it’s too difficult or dangerous to remove, your doctor may simply choose to monitor the growth for changes.

What is the outlook for agitation?

Your outlook will depend on the underlying cause of your agitation and the steps you take to treat it. In many cases, taking steps to reduce stress can relieve agitation. In other cases, you may need to take medication or have other treatments on a temporary or ongoing basis. Ask your doctor for more information about your specific condition, treatment options, and long-term outlook.

Content licensed from:

Written by: April Kahn
Medically reviewed on: Oct 25, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, CRNP

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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