Aggression is defined as a type of intentional behavior that often involves hostile, violent, or destructive actions. Aggression can be either physical or verbal. In many instances, verbal aggression can be just as harmful to the wellbeing of others as physical aggression. If a person carries out an act or makes statements intended to cause pain, damage, or discomfort to another person, those acts or statements are most likely aggressive in nature.

The causes of aggressive behavior can vary. Aggression can be tied to mental illness or substance abuse, or aggression may occur when a person feels intensely threatened and finds him- or herself with limited coping resources. Some mental health disorders that may feature aggression include intermittent explosive disorder, schizophrenia spectrum or other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, some anxiety disorders, and trauma and stressor-related disorders such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Personality disorders such as borderline, antisocial, paranoid, and narcissistic personality disorders may also lead a person to display aggressive behavior. Substance abuse, especially when it involves the use of stimulant drugs, may lead to aggressive behavior as well.

Ongoing aggressive behavior can lead to problems at work, cause strain among family members, and result in the individual having interaction with the legal system because of his or her behaviors. People who exhibit chronically aggressive behavior often experience a steady decline in life satisfaction because of these inappropriate behaviors.

The good news for anyone who has struggled with aggression, or has a loved one who displays aggressive behaviors, is that methods of treatment for these particular behaviors do exist and are evolving to incorporate modern understandings of brain processes, trauma treatment, and both psychosocial and pharmaceutical methods. Many people find that it is possible, with effective treatment, to gain control over these impulses and live happier, healthier lives.

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Causes of Aggression

Aggression can be a long-lasting problem, or it may come and go during times of stress or when one does not possess healthy coping skills. There is no single cause of aggression, but mental health experts agree that there are several factors that may lead to an increase in aggressive behaviors. These causes include, but are not limited to, the following:

Genetic: Specific genes and genotypes have been tied to aggressive behavior. In some instances, brain damage from injury or repeated concussions may cause aggressive behavior, and, in other instances, hormone levels or overall health problems may contribute to the presentation of aggressive behavior. However, most clinicians agree that these are all simply risk factors that can potentially cause aggression, and they do not directly link to aggressive behavior in every case.

Environmental: There are a number of environmental factors that can make an individual more likely to become aggressive. Adults who experienced violence or abuse as children are more likely to engage in aggressive behavior or choose aggressive mates than the general population. Trauma at any age can contribute to physically or verbally aggressive behavior, as trauma can elicit aggression as an unhealthy coping skill over time. Some aggressive impulses are related to anxiety or fight-or-flight instincts. Individuals who are under constant stress or who lack coping skills or a supportive social network are also at an increased risk for displaying aggressive behavior.

Substances and medications: The use of certain medications may also result in an increase of aggressive behavior. Stimulant medications, particularly when misused, may lead to increased episodes of verbal or physical aggression. In some cases, unwanted side effects of prescription medications may also lead to aggression. Other substance-related causes of aggression include alcohol or drug abuse, and sometimes drug withdrawal. For these reasons, it is beneficial to take note of when aggressive behaviors begin so as to rule out substances as being the cause of their onset.

Mental health disorders:  While mental health disorders have both genetic and environmental causes, the presence of some mental health diagnoses may indicate a higher risk for aggressive behavior. There are a few mental health disorders that may involve some aggressive behavior, and receiving treatment for those disorders may decrease aggressive behavior. Some mental health disorders that are connected with aggression include:

  • Personality disorders such as borderline, narcissistic, antisocial, or paranoid personality disorders
  • Bipolar disorder, particularly when experiencing a manic episode
  • Intermittent explosive disorder (IED)
  • Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other trauma and stressor-related disorders
  • Substance use disorders
  • Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders
  • Alzheimer’s disease or other neurocognitive disorders

Signs and Symptoms of Aggression

Aggression can appear in a variety of ways. Two types of aggression are affective aggression and instrumental aggression, and both types of aggressive behavior can lead to a number of negative effects if left untreated. These two forms of aggression are described in the following:

Instrumental Aggression: Instrumental aggression is aggression that has some level of premeditation, or pre-planning, before the aggressive incident occurs. Instrumental aggression often has a delayed impact, such as in bullying or the creation of rumors. In some cases, instrumental aggression is known as goal-oriented aggression or predatory aggression. Examples of instrumental aggression include:

  • Teasing or bullying
  • Gossiping or spreading rumors
  • Harassing others online
  • Vandalizing property
  • Excluding or “punishing” others
  • Pre-planned assault or damage to property
  • Making indirect (passive) aggressive comments at social gatherings

Affective Aggression: Affective aggression usually occurs when a person feels immediate anger and reacts quickly to inflict harm or distress on another person or to property. Affective aggression is often impulsive and emotional in nature. Some examples of affective aggression include:

  • Saying hurtful or regretful things in reaction to anger
  • Pushing or shoving
  • Slapping, punching, or hitting
  • Verbal assault, name calling, or making threats of violence
  • Spitting or making socially unwelcome gestures
  • Pinching, scratching, or grasping another person in a painful way
  • Shooting, stabbing, or assaulting another person or thing
  • Suddenly punching walls or other objects
  • Engaging in sudden road rage

You may notice that instrumental aggression and affective aggression can occur at the same time. For instance, in cases of domestic violence, a perpetrator may consistently put a partner down in order to control that person, intentionally harm that partner financially, or track (stalk) the partner in a threatening way. This person may also reacting without premeditation, such as when suddenly engaging in name-calling or striking a partner in the heat of a moment.

If you feel that you are in crisis, or are having thoughts about hurting yourself or others, please call 9-1-1 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

Effects of Aggression

There are a variety of effects that can come from continually engaging in aggressive behaviors. These effects can impact a person’s entire life and may lead to unfortunate consequences. Some of these possible effects can include:

  • Injury from fights or impulsive behavior
  • Job loss
  • Poverty due to the financial strain brought on by unemployment
  • Relationship difficulties or loss of important relationships
  • Exacerbated symptoms of an existing mental health disorder
  • Problems with the legal system, including possible jail sentences
  • Decline in occupational performance
  • Developing a problem with abusing drugs and/or alcohol
  • Social withdrawal
  • Ongoing feelings of shame and/or guilt

Treatment for Aggression

Aggressive behavior that has not been treated can lead to a life of unhappiness for the aggressive individual, while also producing a dangerous and unhealthy environment for everyone around that person. Aggression within a family is related to increased chances of mental health distress, substance abuse, and other health problems among all family members. Chronic aggression can lead to a breakdown that is very difficult to overcome.

The good news is that there is help for individuals who struggle with aggressive behavior. Inpatient treatment offers a safe space for the aggressive individual to learn more about his or her behaviors and address the underlying causes and complications that come along with aggression. Many programs offer support and outreach to families as well. Because there is usually an underlying cause of aggression, it is important to explore the reasons why someone is displaying aggression.

Inpatient treatment offers a well-rounded approach to treating aggression, other mental health concerns, and possible substance abuse issues. Licensed, experienced mental health clinicians and medical professionals are able to take a fresh and objective look at any situation and uncover new solutions to issues like aggression and the effects that these issues can create.

By learning how to identify, manage, and regulate aggression, individual patients are able to uncover the root causes behind unhealthy behaviors and make lasting changes. By building necessary coping skills and recovery resources, each individual patient will have the power to create a more peaceful life.

Even if aggression has impacted your life in every way, causing you to feel as if there is no hope, treatment can make a difference. Inpatient treatment can help you uncover any mental or physical health conditions that are stopping you from living a better life. In addition, inpatient treatment offers support through the development of individualized treatment plans and a dedicated support staff who can help each person focus on healing without distraction from the outside world so that true wellness can be achieved.

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