Is venting effective at reducing anger?

Scream into a pillow. Squeeze a stress ball. Head over to the gym and assault a punching bag. Let it all out.

Do something.

Otherwise it’ll all build up and one day you’ll snap. That’s obvious, right? Besides, when you release the anger, you no longer feel like punching the idiot that cut you off while driving or screaming at the person who won’t stop talking during the movies.

It feels good.

However, that’s all it’s useful for – the short moment of happiness we experience after venting.

In a recent post about hatred being harmful I explained why we shouldn’t hold onto hatred and dislike for other people because it achieves personal frustration more than anything else. Venting is similar. The idea that we’re better off releasing anger is false.

Releasing emotions – primarily anger and frustration in this case – were central themes in Aristotle’s poetry and Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis. But there’s a more important reason as to why we are so accustomed to it. By releasing our anger, we become accustomed to it because we enjoy the brief feeling of relief and happiness experienced afterwards.

It is more effective to just stop yourself from venting than it is to release it by screaming or punching a wall. If you don’t believe me, I don’t blame you. We’re usually told in one way or another that venting is an effective way to reduce stress.

In 1999, Psychologists Brad Bushman, Angela Stack and Roy Baumeister published a study on whether catharsis is an effective way to reduce aggression. They found two things:

1)      The belief that catharsis is effective makes you more likely to vent your anger.

2)      Those who were angered and allowed to vent continued to be more aggressive.

They split a group of university students into three groups. Each group either read a pro-catharsis, anti-catharsis or a neutral article. They later wrote an essay on a topic and they were graded. Although they believed their grades to be genuine, half of them were simply told ‘This is one of the worst essays I’ve ever read!’ while the other half was told, ‘No suggestions, great essay!’ The group who believed catharsis was effective and received bad marks were much more likely to pick aggressive activities such as hitting punching bags to help cool off.

The more important study was the second. It replicated the first but was extended to allow the participants take revenge on the person who marked their essay. Before they did this, one group punched a punching bag and the other group just sat down for two minutes.

They took revenge on each other by blasting them with a loud noise and they got to choose how loud the noise was. The results were unsurprising (or surprising if you felt that venting was effective). The punching bag group made the others endure a much louder noise in comparison to the others since their aggression hadn’t worn off.

Holding onto anger isn’t good for your own emotional well being but neither is letting it all out in an aggressive manner. You’re more likely to continue venting simply because it feels good but in the long term but it isn’t an effective way to release stress.

The next time you feel angry and want to scream, ask yourself whether it is worth your energy. Taking deep breaths, going for a short walk or simply separating yourself from the situation briefly are all effective ways to help you calm down and reassess the situation with a cool head. What’s important here is to realise that cooling off doesn’t equal not dealing with your anger at all. If none of the techniques above help, go outside and blow bubbles.

We aren’t perfect so I don’t expect everyone to change their attitude towards anger straight away – we will vent from time to time. Reducing and eventually stopping it is something that’s helped me become less negative.

Ultimately, releasing anger uncontrollably is like pouring fuel into a fire and expecting it to stop burning.

***

I hope you enjoyed the article and possibly learnt something new. Changing my attitude towards anger has helped me since it used to be a fairly big problem when I was younger. I do recommend that you read the Bushman study or the psychology myth linked below!

How do you deal with anger?

***

Sources and further reading:

The Bushman Study

Psychology Myths – It’s Better to Express Anger to Others than to Hold It in

Catharsis

Aristotle – Tragic catharsis

Playing violent games for a release that never comes

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9 comments

  1. This is a great post! I’d been thinking about how unfulfilling venting felt to me, and now I think I’ll try blowing bubbles or something else distracting to deal with anger :-)

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