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The Aggression Cycle

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

"Mankind likes to think in terms of extreme opposites." John Dewey

There is a duality with anger. This duality makes anger a complex topic. In one instance, it is harmful. But, on the other hand, it serves an adaptive function environmentally and interpersonally. As the title suggests, this post is about the aggression cycle. So, without further ado, let us operationally define the words anger and aggression.

Anger - "is a feeling or emotion that ranges from mild irritation to intense fury and rage."

Aggression – “a behavior that is intended to cause harm to another person or property.”

In our daily interactions, there are several situations likely to trigger anger. Some of these triggers may be thought of as low priority versus high priority anger-provoking situations. For example, in a low-priority incident perhaps someone disturbs you by tapping on the desk while you are listening to a presentation. In this instance, your response may simply be to ask the person to stop tapping on the desk. In contrast, a high-priority incident may be feeling threatened.

No two persons are triggered in the same way. So, therefore, what’s a low priority for one person may be a high priority for another and vice versa.

Anger management experts Reilly and Shopshire point out an episode of anger that leads to aggression can be viewed as having three phases (escalation, explosion, and post-explosion). The three phases make up the aggression cycle.

First is the escalation of anger – you are triggered by something or someone in the environment. Consequently, you experience one or more of the cues/anger warning signs. The cues are behavioral, cognitive, physical, and emotional. Your anger increases gradually or rapidly. You may even deny you are frustrated until you can no longer suppress your anger.

The second phase is the explosion – the inappropriate discharge of anger. The loss of control at this phase leads to destructive acts that may hurt someone or damage property. These actions may include breaking and/or throwing objects, physically assaulting another person. In some instances, the out-of-control person may cause personal harm by punching walls or glass windows or mirrors that result in injury.

The third phase is post-explosion – you are now left with the consequences of your inappropriate discharge of anger. During this cooling-off period, you are left to reflect on your actions. This is not to suggest the cooling-off period happens immediately after the loss of control. Depending on the duration and intensity of the explosion phase. The cooling-off period may last for a few minutes or hours. The person may feel guilt or shame about the aggressive behaviors. Struggle with making amends if the aggression was directed toward another person(s), having to replace property, and/or deal with law enforcement.

You can get angry without you reaching the explosion phase of the aggression cycle. If you respond with appropriate anger management strategies, such as:

  • Conflict resolution

  • Know the difference between anger and aggression

  • Be mindful of your misconceptions about anger

  • Awareness of the underlying feelings for the anger

  • Use of assertive communication

  • Time out - remove yourself from the anger-provoking situation

  • Try not to settle a dispute in the presence of an audience

  • Verbal de-escalation skills

  • Use “I” statements – to avoid blaming and criticizing the other person(s)

  • Be mindful of your automatic thoughts – think before you speak

  • Have realistic expectations for yourself and the other person(s) – don’t expect the other person(s) to listen, if you are unwilling to listen

In spite of the duality, anger management is an important skill to develop.

Stay Naturally Curious

Bartholomew, N. G., & Simpson, D. D. ( 2005). Understanding and reducing angry feelings. Texas Institute of Behavioral Research at Texas Christian University.

Reilly P. M., & Shopshire M. S. (2002). Anger management for substance abuse and mental health clients: A Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Manual. DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 02-3661.

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