Your Health Matters: 3. Dealing with Aggression (A 4-Part Series )

Aggression is a complex subject, not least because what one person sees as an acceptable form of expressing anger or frustration may be seen by others as a violent act.

Here we explore aggression as verbal and non-verbal behaviours and how these behaviours can affect the communication processes. This page does not cover more violent expressions such as physical assault upon another person.

What is Aggression?

Although aggression appears easy to recognize, defining it proves more difficult.  The difficulty appears to lie in distinguishing between acceptable aggressive behaviour which can occur when individuals are angry or frustrated, and violence, which involves the use of physical force and inflicts damage or injury to a person or property.

Humanistic psychologists have made distinctions by classifyng aggression as:

  • Natural or positive aggression which is aimed largely at self-defense, combating prejudice or social injustice, or
  • Pathological aggression which results when an individual’s inner nature has become twisted or frustrated.

Another distinction has been made by Buss (1961) who considers aggression as either hostile or instrumental aggression. Buss argues that:

  • Hostile aggression occurs when the aggressive behaviour is aimed solely at hurting another, in other words aggression for the sake of aggression.
  • Instrumental aggression occurs when aggression is a means to an end, and includes self-defense.

– Buss, A. H. (1961) The Psychology of Aggression. Wiley

Types of Aggressive Behaviour

Aggression can be distressing or harmful to the recipient.  Types of behaviour 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

Aggression as an Instinct

There are a number of theories that attempt to explain aggression by suggesting that aggressive behaviour occurs because each individual is born with an aggressive instinct.

Such theories suggest that aggression is innate, i.e. inborn, and, therefore, unavoidable.

Outlets such as competitive sport and creative pursuits serve to reduce socially unacceptable aggressive behaviour.

Frustration as a Factor in Aggression

The Frustration-Aggression theory proposes that aggression occurs as a result of frustration.  The inference is that if individuals are frustrated in achieving their aims, the most likely response is aggression.  Such individuals are motivated to be aggressive towards whoever or whatever is standing in their way.

While frustration often leads to feelings of aggression, critics of this theory have argued that it does not explain all the causes of aggression.

Aggression as Learned Behaviour

The theory of aggression as a learned behaviour is called the Social Learning Approach.  This theory argues that aggressive behaviour is not inborn, rather it is something that is learned, either through direct experience or through observation or imitation of others.

The more that an individual’s aggression is rewarded, perhaps by getting what is wanted or by parental approval, the more likely that person is to be aggressive in the future.

Experiencing Aggression

In order to understand aggression in others, it is useful to consider your own feelings of aggression as this varies from person to person.  Reaching an awareness of your personal experiences will help you to monitor and control your reaction to aggression in others.

People are both physically and emotionally affected by aggression.  Emotions can alter their physical state, for example when feeling angry your muscles tighten, the heart beats faster and shaking can occur.

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

If you are to deal with aggression in others, it is important that you understand what sort of behaviour or person makes you feel aggressive, how you react and how you can control your feelings.


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