With all of the stress going on in our hectic lives, it's not unusual to feel angry and want to lash out at people, scream, punch pillows, or worse. In fact, a lot of people believe that this kind of catharsis or open expression is the best way to overcome angry feelings. Unfortunately, this is one of the most widespread social myths of our time (largely due to the legacy of Joseph Breuer and Sigmund Freud's well-known theory that bottled up anger is more harmful than expressed anger). It turns out that when put to the test, researchers have discovered that not only does venting not
necessarily improve our psychological state, it may actually worsen it.
Yes, you read that correctly. Angry tirades, punching pillows (or anything else), and confrontation of the person we view as the cause of our anger doesn't necessarily reduce or resolve our anger; in some cases, it makes it worse (not to mention the regret we often feel after we do something rash). In fact, Brad Bushman, one of today's leading researchers on anger and aggressive responding, believes that "venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire--it only feeds the flame."1
So if venting isn't the answer, what is?
1) Remove yourself from the situation. By physically removing yourself from the situation, you are giving yourself a chance to reflect and come up with a rational plan to address the problem. Staying immersed in the situation greatly increases the probability that you will react to the emotion and later regret what you did or said in the "heat of the moment." Walking away separates you from the "source" of the anger so that you're able to reflect, breathe, and calm yourself down. Of course, if the source of your anger is internal, then it's hard to "walk away" from it. But working out your anger--literally--is another great way to effectively release anger. An intense workout or any kind of physical exercise is a great way to release tension and negative emotions, in part, because exercise releases natural endorphins, which make us feel good.
2) Delay your reaction. Delaying any kind of action or reaction, even a few minutes, often serves to diffuse anger. This works very well when you're angry and you decide to write an angry email or letter. If you delay sending it, once you come back to it, you'll likely either tone it down a bit before you do send it or not send it at all.
3) Distract yourself. Read a book, sing a song, paint a picture, play a game--do whatever it takes to take your mind off the source of your angry feelings.
4) Find an incompatible response. This last tip is the simplest, but often the hardest to do--breathe and relax. It is physiologically impossible to be tense and relaxed at the same time. Deep breathing and relaxation (which can take many forms, such as a warm bath, listening to music, muscle contraction and release, etc.) is the quickest and surest way to replace anger with calm.
Finally, it's important to recognize that anger is as much a symptom as it is an emotion. And like any other symptom, its frequency and intensity is something you should pay close attention to. Using a medical example, if you get a headache every once in a while, that's normal. But if you find your head is hurting often, there may be an underlying problem causing it that you should look into. The same applies to anger. If you find yourself getting angry more easily or more often than ever before, it may signal a more serious problem, such as depression or burnout, and that's not something you want to ignore.
Until next time, I'll leave you with these wise words: Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned. ~Buddha
© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved
Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of the newly released book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout
(Prometheus Books, 2011).
1. Brad Bushman, "Venting Anger Only Feeds the Flame," Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 28, no. 6 (2002): 724-731.