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DIAGNOSES Back to Course Index

Frequently aggression is used to regain control when someone feels as though they have lost authority over their decisions or well-being.

Aggressive behavior may be a symptom of a number of DSM psychiatric diagnoses, including conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, behavior disorder not otherwise specified, intermittent explosive disorder, impulse control disorder not otherwise specified and some personality disorders, as well as can be seen throughout alcohol and other drug addictions. Thus, aggressive behavior may be related to a very wide range of diagnoses.

Aggression takes a variety of forms among people based upon culture, personality, psychosocial history, gender and situation.  Aggression can be physical, mental, or verbal.

As noted previously, there are two broad categories of aggression. These include hostile, affective, or retaliatory aggression and instrumental, predatory, or goal-oriented aggression. Empirical research indicates that there is a critical difference between the two, both psychologically and physiologically.

Some research indicates that people with tendencies toward “affective” aggression, defined as being “impulsive, unplanned, overt, or uncontrolled” have lower IQs than those with tendencies toward “predatory” aggression, defined as being “goal-oriented, planned, hidden, or controlled”.

Culture is a distinctly human factor that plays a role in aggression.

Empirical cross-cultural research has found differences in the level of aggression between cultures. In one study, American men resorted to physical aggression more readily than Japanese or Spanish men, whereas Japanese men preferred direct verbal conflict to their American and Spanish counterparts. Within American culture, southerners were shown to become more aroused and to respond more aggressively than northerners when affronted. There is also a higher homicide rate among young white southern men than among white northern men in the United States.

Behaviors like aggression can be learned by watching and imitating the behavior of others. A considerable amount of evidence suggests that watching violence on television, movies. Video games and social media increase the likelihood of short-term aggression in children. We are programming the youth on how to resolve conflict.

Gender is a factor that plays a role in both human and animal aggression. Males are historically believed to be more physically aggressive than females. This observation is validated by the result of studies that have found more males than females exhibit aggression. Further, aggressive behavior is exhibited more frequently or more intensely in adolescents and young adults. It usually declines in middle and later adult- hood. However, aggressive behavior is often very stable over time. This is one of the most robust and reliable behavioral sex differences, and it has been found across many different age groups and cultures.

Aggression is more likely in persons with one or more of the following attributes:

  • Greater degrees of intellectual disability;
  • Organic brain damage;
  • Sensory disabilities;
  • Difficulties in language;
  • Poor coping skills;
  • Poor problem-solving skills;
  • Limited social skills;
  • Weak or non-existing social support system;
  • Psychiatric disorders

With psychiatric and alcohol and other drug treatment populations you frequently have:

  • Limited social skills
  • Multiple legal and social problems and
  • A history of substance abuse

Each of these can exacerbate a tendency toward aggressive behavior.


Common physical and emotional reactions associated with anger – which may lead to aggression

Physical Reactions:

  • Dry mouth
  • Sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • ‘Butterflies’ in the stomach
  • Muscle tension
  • Shaking
  • Legs feel weak and shaky
  • Clenched fists, teeth and jaw

Emotional Reactions:

  • Frustration/feeling powerless
  • Anger
  • Impatience
  • Restlessness
  • Hostility
  • Depression and/or anxiety
  • Feeling upset and/or starting to cry

Types of Aggressive Behavior

Aggression can be distressing or harmful to the recipient.  Types of behavior that may be considered aggressive include the following:

  • Shouting
  • Swearing
  • Personal insults and name calling
  • Racial or sexual comments
  • Verbal threats
  • Posturing and threatening gestures
  • Abusive phone calls, letters, online messages
  • Other forms of harassment
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sarcasm