When employed in a psychological context, the word aggression has a specific definition. Psychologists and other professionals in the behavioral sciences use the word aggression to describe the act of engaging in violent or hostile behaviors with the intention of inflicting pain, damage, or another unpleasant outcome on a person or property. Aggression can also be verbal, and the pain it is intended to cause can result in emotional or psychological strife that can be just as damaging as physical injury. Whether or not pain or damage actually occurs, if an action was taken with the intent of causing pain or damage, it will fall under the psychological and/or behavioral definition of aggression.
While clearly a problem on its own, aggression can also be a symptom of a mental health disorder. For example, conduct disorder, intermittent explosive disorder (IED), posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder (DMDD) are among several mental health disorders whose signs and symptoms may include aggression.
Regardless of the cause of a person’s aggression, this behavior has the potential to cause significant problems, both for the individual and for those with whom he or she comes into contact. In many cases, treatment that includes effective programming can help people regain control over their behaviors and learn how to conduct themselves in a healthier, non-aggressive manner.
Causes of Aggression
No single cause determines whether or not a person will have a problem with aggression. However, experts have identified several factors that they believe may influence whether or not a person will engage in aggressive behaviors. Consider the following:
Genetic: Researchers have identified several genes and genetic variants that appear to play a role in influencing aggressive behaviors. These genes, most of which are related to the production and functioning of serotonin, seem to be involved in either triggering or moderating aggression in response to perceived stresses. A study published in 2014 estimates that genetic factors account for about 50% of variances in disruptive and aggressive behaviors within a particular population.
Environmental: Environmental factors can also play a significant role in influencing aggression. For example, as noted in the previous paragraph, the expression of aggression-related genetic factors may be triggered by exposure to stress, which is an environmental influence. Aggression can also be a learned behavior, resulting from growing up in a household where child abuse, domestic violence, and other forms of aggressive behaviors were common, or from living in a neighborhood or community where exposure to aggression is a regular occurrence. Trauma can also be an environmental influence on the development of aggression, especially in individuals whose exposure to trauma results in posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Medications: As is often the case with illicit drugs such as cocaine or methamphetamine, certain legal medications have a side effect of increasing aggression. For example, a study by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices revealed that Chantix, a prescription medication that is used to help people quit smoking, was 18 times more likely than any of the 483 other drugs in the study to be associated with violence and other forms of aggression. Certain prescription antidepressants, sedatives, and stimulants have also been identified as promoting increased aggression in some users.
Mental health disorders: As noted in the environmental section above, individuals may display aggression as a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder. But PTSD is not the only mental health condition that is associated with aggression. The following are among the many mental health disorders whose symptoms may include aggression:
- Bipolar disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder
- Conduct disorder
- Intermittent explosive disorder
- Alzheimer’s disease
Signs and Symptoms of Aggression
Aggression may take a variety of forms, with no one sign, symptom, or behavior common to all cases of aggression. The following are among the more prevalent types of aggression, divided into two main types: affective and instrumental:
Affective aggression: Also commonly referred to as retaliatory aggression, reactive aggression, and hostile aggression, this form of aggression is characterized by impulsive, emotional actions that appear to be fueled by anger and that are designed to inflict immediate harm. Types of affective aggression include the following:
- Hitting, slapping, and/or punching
- Pulling hair
- Scratching or pinching
- Pushing or shoving
- Verbal assault and/or threats of violence
Instrumental aggression: In contrast to the spur-of-the-moment nature of affective aggression, instrumental aggression has an element of premeditation and often involves a delayed impact. Instrumental aggression may also be referred to as predatory aggression or goal-oriented aggression. Types of instrumental aggression include the following:
- Spreading rumors or gossiping
- Bullying or teasing
- Engaging in online harassment
- Ignoring, excluding, or ostracizing
- Attempting to ruin one’s reputation or undermine one’s authority
Affective aggression and instrumental aggression are not mutually exclusive behaviors. For example, in some cases of child abuse, domestic violence, and bullying, the perpetrator may engage in affective aggression such as punching, slapping, or verbal abuse in response to an immediate stimulus, while also practicing a long-term pattern of instrumental aggression via premeditated teasing or other forms of verbal harassment that are designed to denigrate the victim and diminish his or her self-esteem and sense of self-worth.
Effects of Aggression
By definition, acts of aggression are designed to inflict pain or damage. But aggression can also exact a potentially devastating toll on the perpetrator, especially when these actions are symptomatic of a mental health disorder. The following are among the potential negative effects that untreated aggression can have on a person:
- Diminished academic performance
- Expulsion from school
- Family discord
- Strained or ruined interpersonal relationships
- Social ostracization
- Problems getting and keeping a job
- Chronic unemployment
- Substance abuse
- Physical harm
- Legal trouble
- Worsening of any existing mental health symptoms
Treatment for Aggression
As indicated throughout this page, aggression places a person at heightened risk for a wide range of negative effects, from the immediate damage of physical harm to the long-term devastation of social ostracization, chronic unemployment, and the failure to achieve one’s academic or occupational potential. In addition to increasing the likelihood that a person will struggle with these setbacks, failing to get treatment for aggression also means that the disorder or disorders that led to the aggression will also be allowed to progress unchecked. Many of the disorders that cause aggression, including posttraumatic stress disorder, conduct disorder, and intermittent explosive disorder, can be addressed with comprehensive professional treatment.
When a person who has a problem with aggression enters an effective treatment program, he or she will have the opportunity to work with professionals who can identify and address all of the issues that may have contributed to or been impacted by the aggression. Via a variety of therapeutic activities, the individual in question will have the opportunity to process the impact of his or her aggression while also developing new and healthier ways of dealing with conflict, stress, and other experiences that may trigger an outburst of aggression.
As both a standalone behavior and as a symptom of a mental health disorder, aggression can cause significant pain and severely compromise an individual’s ability to live a satisfying life. With effective treatment, however, the pain of the past can be transformed into the promise of a healthier and more productive future.