Aggression is characterized by an intent to cause another person physical or psychological harm. It differs from anger in that anger is a natural response to something unpleasant or someone you feel has done you wrong. When anger is taken out on people, animals, or objects, it may be considered aggression.

This article will provide signs of aggression, discuss the potential causes, and discuss treatment options.

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Symptoms of Aggression

There are different forms of aggression, and within each form, various ways a person can express aggression. Here are some examples:

  • Physical aggression: Hitting, biting, kicking
  • Verbal aggression: Screaming or name-calling
  • Relational aggression: Aggressive behavior with the intent of manipulating or damaging other people's relationships, such as by spreading rumors or isolating someone from their friends

Each form of aggression can occur directly, with the person present, or indirectly by doing something to hurt their property, feelings, reputations, or relationships without them being there.

Types of Aggression

Aggression can be a reaction to something or can be planned. It is categorized as "proactive" or "reactive," as follows:

  • Proactive aggression is initiated by the person showing aggression and is related to a goal such as gaining justice, power, or another reward.
  • Reactive aggression occurs in response to provocation or threat and is accompanied by strong emotions like anxiety, anger, or rage.

Causes of Aggression

Aggression is impacted by biological, social, environmental, and psychological factors.

Genetic Factors

Sometimes, genetic factors can predispose people to aggression. For example, some people are born with a relatively stable personality predisposition to respond to certain situations with aggression. This is known as "trait anger." Certain genes have also been linked to a predisposition toward aggression.

Research also shows that people with aggression have less impulse and emotional control from a young age.

Other Factors

Additional factors that contribute to aggression include:

  • Exposure to violence (in person or virtually)
  • Hormones
  • Living in a highly stressful environment
  • Provocation
  • Rejection from others

The Weapons Effect

The "weapons effect" is a phenomenon that suggests the mere sight of a weapon can lead to aggressive thoughts and behaviors.

Aggression and Mental Illness

The relationship between mental illness and aggression is complex. Elements of aggression may be associated with certain untreated mental illnesses, including:

Some personality disorders are associated with higher levels of aggression, including:

  • Antisocial personality disorder
  • Borderline personality disorder

How to Treat Aggression

Treatment for aggressive behavior depends on its cause. Your provider may recommend medication, therapy, or a combination of both. It is essential to consult a mental health or medical professional to receive an accurate diagnosis when mental health disorder symptoms accompany aggression.

Controlling Aggression

There are various approaches to treating aggressive behaviors independent of an underlying condition. Here are some ways to control aggression:

  • Know your triggers: If you know the situations that cause you to feel angry and notice the signs your body gives you that you're about to react, you'll have a better chance of stopping yourself before you become aggressive.
  • Give yourself time and space to calm down: Rather than responding immediately, try leaving the situation. Walk away until you feel calm.
  • Do something physically active: Aggression has a physical component to it. Use the energy from your anger for something healthier, like going for a walk, running, or lifting weights.
  • Talk (or write) it out: If something makes you angry, try talking through the situation with a friend, loved one, or mental health professional. Sometimes, talking about your anger can help you feel calmer and avoid reacting aggressively. If there isn't anyone you can talk to, try talking to yourself or writing your thoughts down.

Helping Others

It can be challenging to be around someone who becomes angry or aggressive. Though you can never take away someone's anger, you may be able to take action to prevent the situation from worsening. Here are some tips:

  • Stay calm: Getting loud, losing control, or using threatening language can spark aggression in others.
  • Give them space: Walk away if things get emotional; allow time for everyone to calm down.
  • Set boundaries: Be clear about the type of behavior you will tolerate and consider what you will do if your boundaries are crossed.

Are There Tests to Diagnose the Cause of Aggression?

A healthcare provider can take a report of symptoms, medical history, and list of medications. They will then perform a physical examination and may perform a neurological examination to look for underlying conditions. They may refer you to a mental health professional for a psychological assessment.

A mental health professional will conduct a psychological interview and assessment. They will apply specific criteria for the diagnosis of mental health conditions, found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5).

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Feeling angry is a completely normal emotion that everyone experiences. But if you or someone you love finds this leading to aggression, it's important to find ways to control it, so nobody gets hurt. See a healthcare provider or a mental health professional to look for the underlying cause or condition and get treatment.


Aggression can be proactive or reactive and may present as physical or psychological behavior intended to harm another person. Genetics, environment, mental health disorders, and social factors impact aggressive behavior.

There are strategies to control anger so it doesn't turn into aggression. For some, however, seeking help from a mental health professional is the best approach and allows for an accurate diagnosis and effective treatment plan.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What causes aggression?

    Many factors can contribute to aggressive behavior, including genetics, environment, mental health disorders, or social factors.

  • How can I stop my aggressive behavior?

    You can control aggression by separating yourself from the trigger as soon as you notice that you are angry. Walking away, getting exercise, or talking through it can help calm you down. If these methods don't work, consult a mental health professional to discuss potential underlying causes of aggression.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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