Defining Reactive Aggression And What It Does To Your Life

Reviewed by Lauren Guilbeault

Published 06/27/2022

It doesn’t matter how old you are, what you do for a living, how many friends you have, how many enemies you have, or how nice you are to people; everyone is bound to experience aggressive behavior in their life.

Sometimes you’ll be the victim of aggression, sometimes you’ll be the aggressor in the situation, and sometimes you’ll witness someone else experience it. Either way, it has a negative effect on all parties involved and needs to be dealt with properly before the issue worsens.

That’s why it’s important to have a firm understanding of the different types of aggression, especially since they all require a different solution. While there’s a clear intent to harm or hurt the other individual with all types of aggression, the reason for that harm is what’s different.

Two of the most popular types of aggression are reactive aggression and proactive aggression. Since we experience both of them daily, let’s look at the differences between them.

Well, what is reactive aggression?

As the name suggests, reactive aggression is aggressive behavior in response to a perceived threat and is designed to eliminate the threat. It’s more of a survival tactic than anything but can also be characterized by a loss of control, especially regarding emotion.

This differs from proactive aggression (similar to instrumental aggression), which is planned aggression fueled by a reward or personal gain awarded to the aggressor. Proactive aggression is usually treated differently because the aggressor had many opportunities to stop themselves but failed to.

On the other hand, reactive aggression is extremely similar to hostile aggression, which is fueled by an intense display of emotion or frustration. The main difference between reactive aggression and hostile aggression is that reactive aggression is generally justified (survival instinct), whereas hostile aggression isn’t.

While some reactive aggression cases are justified, aggression is never the answer and often creates more issues than were present before. Even when aggression is needed for survival, it’ll weigh on that person’s conscience for longer than it took to react that way.

That’s why reactive aggression, though justified in most cases, still needs to be treated by a professional. Without the proper help, the aggression could cause further angst in your life, as well as your loved ones that surround you.

What Is An Example Of Reactive Aggression?

Reactive aggression is common in today’s society because it’s often in response to an act of hostile aggression. As you were likely taught growing up, mixing aggression with aggression (fire with fire) won’t eliminate the aggression -- it’ll only fuel it.

That’s why while reactive aggression is justified, it’s never the answer. To show you what we mean by this, let’s take a look at some real-life examples of reactive aggression:

  1. Let’s say you’re taking your dog for a walk and you pass by someone you haven’t seen in a while. When you hug the other person, your dog thinks that the other person is trying to harm you -- so they attack the other person. The dog is behaving with reactive aggression.
  2. Let’s keep the dog analogy, but this time you see your dog starting to eat a plant they’re not supposed to. To stop the dog, you yell at them and tap their nose. This time, you’re behaving with reactive aggression.
  3. Anytime you’re protecting yourself from another aggressor, you’re likely to engage in reactive aggression. Let’s say you’re walking down the street and someone tries to mug you or fight you. Fighting back and pushing the aggressor away is a form of reactive aggression.
  4. If you witness a child steal a toy from another child and then witness that child hit the other child for stealing the toy, the child who did the hitting behaved with reactive aggression.
  5. Most bar fights are a result of reactive aggression. A good example is when someone steps on another person’s foot or accidentally bumps into someone. Ideally, both parties would apologize and go their separate ways. Unfortunately, most people engage in reactive aggression.
  6. Anytime domestic abuse occurs due to an unfaithful spouse, the aggressor is taking part in reactive aggression. They didn’t like what their spouse did, and instead of handling it professionally, they decided to inflict physical or verbal harm.

Reactive aggression often occurs, especially since it’s the first thing most people turn to when faced with a perceived threat. Our instincts kick in, and we immediately enter survival mode, which is good in certain situations -- we need it.

Unfortunately, most situations don’t call for this type of reaction, and most of us aren’t in a life-or-death scenario daily. Even though it’s reactive in nature, it doesn’t make it the right reaction.

Aggression And The Brain

The brain is such a mysterious masterpiece that we’re still learning more about to this day. While it controls all the positive things, we do, think, and feel, it also controls all the negative actions, feelings, and thoughts we experience daily.

With that being said, you’re likely asking yourself, “What’s the area of the brain that controls aggressive responses?”

It’s no surprise that most of the research being conducted on aggression -- especially reactive aggression -- is focused on the brain’s activity, whether it be hyperactivity or hypoactivity. More specifically, researchers have zeroed in on three main areas of the brain (regarding aggression) -- the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the prefrontal cortex.

While they each play a role in aggression, they do so in different ways, so let’s take a look at each one individually:

  1. Amygdala - located near the center of the brain, deep in the left and right temporal lobes. It’s shaped like two tiny almonds and is often called the ‘fear center of the brain.’ More specifically, it’s responsible for fear conditioning when we associate a negative stimulus with outside factors. It also plays a role in our emotional response to pain.
  2. Hypothalamus is located below the thalamus and above the pituitary gland, which connects the nervous system to the endocrine system. It’s split up into three regions; the anterior region produces hormones and controls circadian rhythm. The medial region produces hypothalamic-releasing hormones and controls motivated behaviors. The posterior region plays roles in thermoregulation, memory, and emotions.
  3. Prefrontal Cortex - located in the front of the brain and makes up nearly 10% of the brain. Its main responsibility is an executive function, but it also plays a role in emotional responses and controlling serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine production (three neurotransmitters related to mood). Damage to the prefrontal cortex results in changes in behavior, as well.

Serotonin is one of the most-studied neurotransmitters when it comes to aggression, and many studies show a decrease in serotonin levels -- especially in the prefrontal cortex -- in aggressive people. With that being said, regulating the serotonin system inside the brain could do any good for the aggressor’s behavior.

In addition to serotonin, stress hormones (such as cortisol) have an effect on aggressive behavior. Since these levels are normally increased during aggression, cortisol regulation could also be beneficial to the aggressor.

What Can You Do About Aggression?

Aggressive behavior isn’t healthy for anyone, whether it’s reactive aggression, proactive aggression, hostile aggression, or instrumental aggression. While they all need to be dealt with differently, they do have one thing in common -- they’re never the answer to any problem.

One of the worst things you can do when you experience aggressive behavior -- either as a witness, as a victim, or as the aggressor -- is ignored what just happened. The more we continue to act like this type of behavior is ‘normal’ or ‘okay,’ the more we’ll continue to see these situations escalate.

To find the help you need, you first need to realize that you need help. It’s the first step in anything -- admitting there’s something you need to improve about yourself or admitting that you need to help someone else improve themselves.

Don’t panic if you’re struggling to come to this realization. Many people need an extra boost or a wake-up call now and then. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, Mind Diagnostics is here to help! We’ve created an online aggression test for people just like you!

Since aggression is different in both males and females, we’ve created one online aggression test for females and males. Everything is available online, and it won’t take you long to complete.

When you’re finished, we’ll help you find a therapist that’s right for you; that way, you can continue to receive the help you need. Admittance is just the first step, but the right therapist can help you take that admittance and turn it into a life full of sustained happiness and success.

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions. Otherwise, take your online aggression test today! Together, we can move past this.