Aggression: Can Changing Your Thinking Change Your Actions?

Aggression and anti-social behaviors have increased over the past 50 years in the US. Although aggression can be a normal part of development for children and adolescents, for some aggressive actions continue into adulthood and go beyond societal norms. Domestic violence, overt physical violence, such as fighting, and ignoring the rights of others are all problems related to aggression. Stealing, vandalism, lying and fire setting can be more hidden forms of aggression.

There are many different treatments for aggression. Treatments, like Dialectical Behavior Therapy, that have a basis in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy focus on the thoughts that are related to aggressive behavior.

The relationship between cognitive processing, emotions and actions is complex. Cognitive theories of emotions and emotional disorders suggest that cognitive appraisals of events (what we think of events) are primary determinants of emotional responses.

Both cognitive and contextual factors frequently precipitate aggression. Perceived stress, a belief that they are being attacked or wronged and minimal recognition of consequences are factors in increased aggressive actions. Those thoughts along with the availability of victims and presence of alcohol or drug use make aggressive behavior more likely.

Cognitive therapies aim at changing the individual's typical appraisal's, rules and cognitive style. In the case of aggression, the individual must change the perceptions and beliefs that contribute to increased anger. In order to do this, the individual must:

1. Cope with arousal. The first step is to identify (observe) what is happening. The individual must become aware of when they are angry and notice the physical sensations and thoughts that accompany it.

2. Replace problem thoughts with thoughts that are helpful in dealing with PROVOCATION. "This could be rough, but I can deal with it" "easy does it" "Live and let live" "Stick to the issues. Don't take it personally."

3. Modify problem thoughts to those that are helpful in dealing with CONFRONTATION. "keep my cool, walk away, take a time out" "I don't need to prove myself" "There's no point in getting mad"

4. Change appraisals and reflections AFTER A CONFRONTATION.

a. Unresolved: "They don't have to agree" "let it go" "don't take it personally"
b. Resolved. Label (Describe) what happened. Praise self.

People frequently need some external limits in order to identify their aggression as a problem and begin actively working on modifying their thoughts. Probation, the risk of losing housing and the risk of losing important valued relationships are common consequences that get people thinking about their aggression.