Responding to someone who is upset or aggressive

While the majority of people who have issues related to alcohol and other drugs (AOD) will never become aggressive, some do.

It’s important to be aware that there are simple strategies that can be useful when this happens. These strategies can prevent aggression from escalating into violence.

Why do people become aggressive?

AOD use disrupts normal brain function, which can result in:

Reduced inhibitions

Many drugs, including alcohol, reduce inhibitions, meaning that a person affected by them is more likely to be impulsive rather than weighing up the consequences before they act. Young people are more likely to be affected in this way because the decision-making part of the brain is only fully developed in the mid 20s.

Impaired judgement

The effects of drugs may also led a person to make an inaccurate assessment of the situation, for example believing something or someone is a threat when it isn’t.


A person affected by drugs may also become irritable, which can lead to aggression. This can be because they are ‘burnt out’ physically and mentally because they have been awake for too long. It can also be because they are withdrawing or ‘coming down’ from drugs.

Assessing risk

In any situation where someone is becoming aggressive, it’s important to take time – if there is time – to consider all options in order to assess the level of risk and, if possible, resolve the incident in a peaceful manner.

When managing a person who is aggressive and possibly affected by AOD, the following should be considered.

1. Potential triggers

Knowing what can trigger a person can help manage their behaviour. The ability to recognise triggers depends on knowing the affected person. However, general potential triggers for people include feelings of being:

  • threatened, unwelcome and/or judged
  • kept waiting too long
  • ignored or excluded.

2. The environment where the incident takes place

Some environments pose greater risks than others – for example, if there are lots of people nearby who could be harmed (especially children), if there are no accessible exit routes or if there are potential weapons nearby.

3. Type of drug(s) taken

It’s often difficult to identify what type of drug or drugs a person has taken. Different drugs have different effects. For example, someone who has become confused by heroin use may use aggressive language but is unlikely to become violent. However, a person who has used crystal methamphetamine (‘ice’) may have increased energy and confidence and may become aggressive and violent. As it’s not always possible to know what substance(s) a person is affected by, in most cases it’s best to deal with their behaviour.

Preventing escalation

The response to a person behaving aggressively can determine whether the incident increases or decreases in volatility.

You can prevent escalation by:

Staying calm

  • Move slowly and try not to make too much eye contact.
  • Give them space and don’t crowd them.
  • Keep your voice low, calm and steady.
  • Quietly move children away.
  • Make the area as safe as you can; remove dangerous objects.
  • Don’t ask too many questions.
  • Say things like, ‘I am not angry with you – I just want to make sure you are safe.’
  • Try and use their name, like ‘Jason, can you tell me what is going on for you?’


  • Be supportive. Tell them that they’ll be okay, and what they’re feeling will go away when the drug wears off.
  • Help them calm down by encouraging them to move to a quiet place where they can rest.
  • Listen to them and respond with calming comments. This isn’t the time to argue.


If you’re worried about anyone who has drunk alcohol or taken drugs, call an ambulance by dialing triple zero (000). Paramedics don’t have to involve the police.

If the person gets violent or threatens to hurt themselves or someone else, move yourself and others to a safe place and call the police by dialing triple zero (000).

After the conflict

If violence has been prevented, it’s important to stay alert after the initial conflict settles down to avoid it flaring up again. Focus should remain on keeping the person calm while ensuring that any other people involved feel safe. Avoid discussing the incident unless the affected person brings it up.


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