Yesterday I was peacefully walking my dog when all of a sudden: HONK HONK! I looked to my right and saw a woman enraged, arms flailing, because the car in front of her wasn't making a left turn fast enough. We've all seen that driver. Hey, let's be honest, most of us have probably been in her seat. I know I have my days—sometimes I have the patience of a saint, sometimes my hand happens to find its way to the horn.
I'm no neuropsychologist so I won't attempt to explain how our primitive amygdalas are firing off in anger. Or how our prefrontal cortex needs a moment to get our emotional ducks in a row. (I've included some resources below for additional reading on those fascinating creatures.)
So, let's take road rage, or any rage, one step further. What if that woman doesn't feel calmer once the car ahead of her makes the turn? Let's say she arrives at work and can't stop thinking about "drivers these days." She is so distracted that she goes to a co-worker and lets loose:
"That [you-know-what] on the way to work today just wouldn't turn! I was late as it is! It never fails, some idiot driver just has to screw things up. Traffic is so horrible ..." and blah blah so on and so on.
Venting. Catharsis. Can feel good right? Actually, more and more research shows that venting isn't all that good for us. In fact, it can perpetuate problems, anger issues as an example, by reinforcing negative responses to situations. And when we enlist friends or coworkers in our rants, it can reinforce our position all the more. You vent, they agree. They share a story in return, it reinforces your story. The result is even more ammunition for getting angry next time you're on the road. We vent about everything, we do it often, and we do it everywhere.
A while back, I worked as a phone-based crisis counselor. I worked the night shift so a number of my calls would inevitably be from people who wanted to vent about their bad day. Phone counselors learn quickly that if a caller is permitted to vent for too long, you find yourself headed down a long road with no turning back. The venting can last for an hour and no problems get solved. What the caller then learns is that he can call a crisis line anytime he needs to vent, crisis or not. Counselors learned to set limits on the venting: "OK, take no more than five minutes to tell me what happened today and when your five minutes are up we'll talk about what's going to help you feel better tonight." It's not that we didn't want to listen to the caller, it's that the caller was ultimately seeking help and our job was to help them find solutions.
People have an innate desire to talk and be heard. After all, we humans have developed and evolved a pretty complex system of communication. And we've become very skilled at venting. But just because we can, doesn't mean we should. In the end, what does it do for us? The venting does not change the situation that made us angry, it won't prevent the situation from happening again in the future, it raises our blood pressure, and it bring negativity to our environment. The rush of venting and ranting can feel intoxicating, when it fact it's usually just toxic.
The good news is, we can learn how to react and act differently. We can practice and build brain fitness, that emotional intelligence that helps us maneuver through triggering situations. Our brains are not fixed unchangeable blobs; they are highly adaptable, malleable, and can learn new tricks. Here are a few ideas:
The 5 W's of Venting:
1. Wait. When you feel triggered, commit yourself to giving some time for the situation to process. In other words, allow that prefrontal cortex to make sense of it all. Angry at a driver? You can choose not to act on your initial reaction. First, a minute to just breathe and let the moment pass.
2. Why? Practice not jumping to conclusions. We are very good at labeling situations and condemning people on a moment's notice. But what if we just couldn't see the dog sitting in the road just in front of that car that was taking so long to turn? What if their car stalled and they just needed a few seconds to restart it? There are endless possibilities as to 'why' something just happened and we may not have all the information we need to make an informed reaction. Practice staying in the moment without labeling and judging, i.e. mindfulness
3. Who? Whose business was it anyway? If someone didn't do something directly at you or intentionally to you, is it really your business to react to it? Step back and ask yourself, "Is this any of my business?" "Is there a solution to this problem and, if so, who is responsible?" Why do we spend so much time getting our feathers ruffled over things we see that don't even involve us?
4. Write. Try an alternative to venting out loud. Rather than rushing off to a coworker or yanking out that cell to gab, grab a pen and jot down some notes or email yourself about what you're angry about. I'm not saying you need to carry around a venting journal, but jotting down some thoughts rather than blabbing them all over the office will engage your body physically and mentally and allow your brain to drain- to slow down. And it makes for a friendlier office.
5. Witness. If you still need to talk with someone after you've tried the other ideas, ask a trusted friend to witness your venting and set limits. "Can I talk to you for five minutes? And I really mean five!" Next time you find yourself venting, pay attention to how many times you repeat the same information. Probably a lot. When we're worked up we repeat ourselves for emphasis. Setting limits will force us to keep it brief, sort out our thoughts, and then focus on to a solution. If the venting doesn't lead to a solution, a lesson learned, or an idea for next time, you might just start to wonder "what's the point?"
Physiology of Anger: http://www.mentalhelp.net/poc/view_doc.php?type=doc&id=5805&cn=116
Angry? Breathing Beats Venting: http://www.physorg.com/news91899145.html