The Causes of Aggression
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Everyone becomes aggressive at times. However, in the setting of other physical symptoms or illness, aggressive tendencies can be representative of an illness.
As fallible human beings, we are all prone to a burst of aggression now and then. Friends don't get along, coworkers get into it, and families fight. Rage and aggression are never pleasant emotions, and most of us always reflect back negatively on when we "lost control" or yelled at another person. But most of these experiences are transient, thankfully, and we are able to regain our composure, apologize, and move on.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for all people. For one reason or another, some people are more prone to angry outbursts. When these bouts of aggression start to interfere with their everyday relationships and functioning, it's time to get some professional help. This is especially true if a person has a sudden personality change or becomes aggressive all of a sudden while sick as such acute changes can represent serious medical conditions and mild forms of brain dysfunction.
If you feel unsafe, seek emergency care
If a person's aggression becomes threatening or violent, remember the number one rule is to be safe. If you feel unsafe or threatened, it is time to get law enforcement involved. Aggression can not only harm others, but the aggressor themselves, and so maintaining control of the situation is critical.
Common accompanying symptoms of aggression
Aggression may be associated with these common symptoms:
Most everyone becomes frustrated, angry, and aggressive at one point in their lives. Some people, however are quicker to anger, more prone to aggression, are less able to control their aggression, or are chronically unable to control their emotions effectively. When such negative behavior is pervasive, it may represent an underlying psychiatric or personality disorder. In the setting of other physical symptoms or illness, this may be representative of an illness negatively impacting brain function.
Aggression may be cause by psychiatric causes such as the following.
- Personality disorder: Certain personality disorders leave people with higher levels of aggression than others.
- Psychiatric disorders: Some psychiatric disorders can cause delusions or aggression.
Aggression may be related to certain neurologic causes, such as the following.
- Dementia: Breakdown of certain parts of the brain, usually due to aging or genetic disease, can lead to changes in behavior, memory, and aggression.
- Brain lesions: Tumors or infections of the brain can lead to behavior changes.
- Autoimmune: Rarely, your body's immune system may inappropriately attack parts of the brain, leading to aggression.
You may be experiencing aggression due to systemic causes, such as the following.
- Drug or alcohol intoxication: High doses of alcohol, drugs, or medications may lead to psychosis and aggression. Withdrawal from these drugs can cause similar symptoms.
- Severe infection: Severe infection can lead to confusion and aggression.
- Blood loss: If a person loses too much blood (anemia), less oxygen is able to get to the brain, causing alterations in behavior.
- Metabolic: Imbalance of key electrolytes and hormones can lead to alterations in behavior.
- Environmental exposure: Certain toxins or other environmental exposures can cause confusion and aggression.
9 conditions of aggression
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Borderline personality disorder is a personality disorder, or a persistent abnormal behavior pattern manifesting during childhood or adolescence, involving unstable mood and relationships, unstable self-image, and recurrent self-harm or suicida...
Post-concussion syndrome is a set of symptoms that can occur after a head injury. A concussion is a mild traumatic brain injury that involves confusion and memory loss, with or without a loss of consciousness. Post-concussion syndrome typically occurs after concuss..
Depression is a mental disorder in which a person feels constantly sad, hopeless, discouraged, and loses interest in activities and life on more days than not. These symptoms interfere with daily life, work, and friendships.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, depressed mood, headache, anxiety, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with depression: depressed mood
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Post-traumatic stress disorder (ptsd)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops as a reaction of trauma. One can get PTSD after living through or seeing a traumatic event, such as war, a hurricane, sexual assault, physical abuse, or a bad accident. PTSD causes stress and fear after the danger is over.
Top Symptoms: psychological or physiological distress
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Alzheimer's disease is a progressive neurological disorder that slowly destroys memory and the ability to think clearly. As symptoms worsen, patients are often unable to perform basic tasks.
Top Symptoms: trouble sleeping, forgetfulness, anxiety, aggression or confusion, anxiety, irritability, depressed mood
Symptoms that always occur with alzheimer's disease:forgetfulness, anxiety, aggression or confusion
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (ocd)
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a type of anxiety disorder. It entails frequent, upsetting thoughts called obsessions. To try to control the thoughts, one feels an overwhelming urge to repeat certain rituals or behaviors. These are called compulsions.
Top Symptoms: impaired social or occupational functioning, anxiety, aggression, anxiety resembling obsessive-compulsive disorder, repetitive patterns of behavior
Symptoms that always occur with obsessive-compulsive disorder (ocd): anxiety resembling obsessive-compulsive disorder, impaired social or occupational functioning
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Conduct disorder refers to a group of behavioral and emotional problems in young people. Children and adolescents with this disorder have difficulty following rules and behaving in a socially acceptable way. May factors may contribute to this disorder, including brain damage, child abuse, genetic vulnerability, school failure, and traumatic life experiences.
Top Symptoms: tendency to often break rules, deception, aggression and serious threats of harm
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Mild bipolar disorder i
Bipolar disorder is a common, lifelong mental health condition of variable severity that can run in families, characterized by episodes depression and mania that last for weeks or months. Symptoms often start in adolescence or young adulthood.
Mania is a state of elevated or irritable mood, with changes in behavior, such as decreased need for sleep, increased goal-directed and risky activities, and increased talkativeness. Depressive episodes in bipolar disorder are like major depression, characterized by low mood, loss of pleasure, and low energy. Mood episodes are separated by periods of remission with stable mood and minimal difficulties with daily function.
Treatment for bipolar disorder varies from person to person, depending on symptoms and other individual factors. It often consists of medications such as mood stabilizers and antipsychotics that help reduce extreme symptoms. Hospitalization may be recommended in acute episodes. Psychotherapy can also be helpful.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, irritability, depressed mood, difficulty concentrating, trouble sleeping
Symptoms that always occur with mild bipolar disorder i: periods of feeling very energetic and needing little sleep
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Schizophrenia is a complex and chronic mental illness that can severely affect a person's behavior and understanding of reality. Schizophrenia interferes with a person's ability to think, make decisions and manage emotions, with many other symptoms that can be significantly disabling.
A wide var..
Aggression treatments and relief
Often, feelings of aggression can be diffused through common coping mechanisms. However, when someone is chronically quick to anger, unable to control their anger, or is overly aggressive, it may be time to seek professional help. If someone becomes aggressive in the context of a traumatic injury or illness, they should be taken to a hospital for treatment as this may be a manifestation of that illness.
At-home aggression treatments
If you're dealing with aggression, consider the following methods for calming yourself or another person down.
- Take a deep breath: Many people find it beneficial to take a deep breath before reacting impulsively to a situation. If you are feeling angry or aggressive, consciously taking a moment to think can help control your emotions.
- Remove yourself from the situation: If you feel unable to control an angry outburst or are extremely frustrated, it can be helpful to take a quick step out or get away from the thing causing you anger.
- Reflect: Try to put yourself in the other person's shoes. Empathy and attempting to understand what another person is thinking and where they are coming from can help put situations in perspective.
- Rest: Sleep is the great equalizer. Intense emotions are processed during sleep, and people often wake up with more calm and rational perspectives after a nap or a good night's sleep.
- Be safe: If someone around you is acting aggressively, try and exit the situation. If you are unable to or if you feel physically threatened, call law enforcement to ensure your safety.
Professional aggression treatments
If aggressive episodes have gotten progressively worse or are persisting, it is time for professional help.
- Therapy: Various types of therapy services are quite effective at managing aggression and other negative personality traits, or the illnesses by which they are caused. Therapy sessions are often individual but may occur in groups as well.
- Medication: Some medications can be used to treat psychiatric illness, or other causes of new-onset aggression.
When aggression is an emergency
You should seek help without delay if you or someone you know is experiencing:
FAQs about aggression
Here are some frequently asked questions about aggression.
Why are some Alzheimer's patients aggressive?
One of the most common symptoms associated with Alzheimer's Disease is memory impairment. However, other symptoms may appear earlier. Visuospatial impairment, or inability to discriminate between the locations of objects in space; and executive dysfunction, including tasks like self control, controlling aggression, and deficits in language and ability to perceive cultural or behavioral norms may appear first. Ability to control aggression is managed primarily by areas within the frontal cortex, which may be damaged by dementia far before symptoms of memory loss appear.
What increases aggressive behavior?
Increases in aggressive behavior can be triggered by a lack of impulse control, which can be triggered by substances that impair judgement like drugs and alcohol, a blow to the head impairing those same judgement centers, increased activation of the aggression center which can, again, be triggered by drugs and alcohol or even social and behavioral situations. Lack of sleep or existing in a space where an individual no longer believes they need to control aggression are common reasons why aggressive behavior may increase.
What are some examples of aggressive behavior?
Aggressive behavior can include open hostility like yelling, throwing objects, or physical altercations. Hostility can also include advancing toward a person, threatening hand gestures, or brandishing an object as a weapon.
Why is my child overly aggressive?
Most commonly, irritable or aggressive children may be missing sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause symptoms of depression or conduct disorders. Additionally, undiagnosed attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder can lead to aggression in some children, especially if they are under stress to perform well at school or at home.
What causes a sudden onset of aggressive behavior?
A sudden onset of aggressive behavior can be caused by many different substances, including drugs and alcohol, as well as age-related dementias like Alzheimer's. Individuals may be more aggressive if they have a sudden onset of a psychological condition like schizophrenia or a long term lack of sleep.
Questions your doctor may ask about aggression
- Are you having difficulty concentrating or thinking through daily activities?
- Have you been feeling more tired than usual, lethargic or fatigued despite sleeping a normal amount?
- Are your symptoms causing difficulty at work, socializing, or spending time with friends & family?
- Do you have trouble sleeping?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
Jesse Passman is a PGY-1 surgery resident. He graduated from Rice University with a BS in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and received his MD from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. During medical school, Jesse performed work in public health and surgery, taking a year-out to pursue an MPH at the University of Pennsylvania and do research in global surgery and the public health implications and clinical outcomes of trauma. In his free time, Jesse likes to travel, hike, backpack, and cycle.
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