Understanding the Psychological Triggers of Aggression in Care

James Hourihan, Author

Managing challenging and sometimes aggressive behaviour is vital for creating a nurturing and productive care environment. Aggression not only disrupts the peaceful atmosphere but also puts both the caregiver and the care recipient at risk or physical and mental harm.

In this article, we’ll pose the question “what’s behind the aggression?”, taking a brief look at the primary psychological triggers that underpin aggression in the care setting and taking the first steps in effective positive behaviour management.

It’s a common misconception that the causes and triggers of aggressive behaviour are one and the same, however this isn’t the case. While the underlying causes might set the stage for aggressive potential, triggers are the direct catalysts that can initiate the behaviour. In this quick guide we’ll explain the common psychological triggers of aggression and how best we can deal handle them.

Understanding the Psychological Factors at Play

Aggressive behaviour can take many different forms, however it is vitally important to understand that all behaviour is communication, through both verbal and non-verbal communication, the patient in question is trying to tell us something.

Recognising these psychological triggers of aggression is crucial for several reasons:

Early Intervention

Knowing what might provoke aggressive behaviour allows carers to intervene before the situation escalates.

Customised Care Plans

Understanding triggers helps in the design of personalised care strategies that can prevent or mitigate aggressive behaviour. Our person-centred approach to training helps identify and develop individual response strategies supporting challenging supporting behaviour.

Enhanced Safety

Recognising and responding accurately ensures a continued safer environment for both carers and patients.

Improved Quality of Care

Being aware of psychological triggers helps carers to respond with a more empathetic approach, which contributes to better patient outcomes.

Aggression as an Method of Communication

The desire to be understood lies at the heart of every aggressive outburst. Carers are encouraged to understand the emotions behind the aggression and to view it as a form of communication suggestive of distress and unmet needs. Some common examples include:

Fear, Anxiety & Emotional Overwhelm

Aggression often serves as a defence mechanism against perceived threats. A patient may become aggressive when they feel scared or anxious, especially in new or stressful environments. Emotions like anger, jealousy, or sadness can become overwhelming and lead to aggressive outbursts if not managed appropriately.

Frustration & Loss of Control

People receiving care often feel they’ve lost their independence and control over their lives, leading to feelings of helplessness. Unmet needs, whether they be emotional or physical, can lead to frustration and a common trigger for aggression. The inability to communicate these needs effectively often exacerbates the problem.

Cognitive Impairment

Conditions such as dementia can cause confusion and result in unexpected aggressive behaviours. Such individuals are often unaware of their actions, making it especially important for carers to understand the triggers.

As these stresses and strains grow in intensity, aggressive behaviour is often the visible manifestation. By seeing outbursts in their correct context, carers are better equipped to achieve preferential outcomes. Even the worst behaviour is a means of communicating and can be de-escalated with the right approach.

Tools for Dealing With Aggressive Behaviour

Aggressive behaviour in care can have far-reaching consequences, negatively affecting both carers and patients. It undermines the overall objective of providing empathetic, high-quality care. However, aggressive behaviour can be minimised or even prevented with the adoption of correct strategies.

Be Aware of Warning Signs

Keep an eye out for body language or verbal cues that might indicate rising tension. Signs like clenched fists, raised voice, or sudden quietness may serve as early warning signs of imminent problems.

Open Communication

Establishing clear channels of communication, agreed upon and understood by all within an organisation can help prevent frustration arising from unmet needs.

Empathy and Active Listening

Taking the time to understand the feelings and needs of the person in care can go a long way in pre-empting aggressive behaviour. Often, people become aggressive because they feel unheard. Listen actively to the individual’s concerns without interrupting.

Environment Modification

Creating a safe, comfortable environment can reduce stress and anxiety, thereby reducing the likelihood of aggression.

Knowing When to Seek Help

Carers should undergo training in positive behaviour management to equip themselves with the tools necessary for handling aggressive behaviours. Recognise the signs when professional help is needed, either for immediate de-escalation or for long-term behavioural intervention.

These suggestions are outlined to supplement more comprehensive strategies for managing aggressive behaviour, ongoing training in positive behaviour management techniques is essential for carers and organisations. Regular, open debriefing meetings to share experiences, techniques and strategies can also prove beneficial to the mental wellbeing and efficiency of all involved.

We’re here to help

Timian Learning & Development has over 30 years of experience delivering positive behaviour management training for the Health, Education, and Social Care sectors. Our BILD ACT-certified and RRN-approved courses focus on helping organisations to effectively manage challenging behaviours. Get in touch to find out more.

About the author

James Hourihan set up Timian Learning and Development in 1994 and has over 30 years experience in delivering training programmes in positive behaviour management to staff across the UK and Overseas. He has developed training programmes which have been certified By BILD Act and approved by the RRN. James has a Bachelors in Development Studies and a Masters Degree in Social Sciences as well as a Postgraduate Certificate in Mental Disability. He also helped develop the BILD Physical Interventions Accreditation Scheme in 2002.

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