Don’t vent: Letting rip in anger … just makes you angrier

Giving vent to your angry feelings might feel good, but you'll just get more worked up.

Giving vent to your angry feelings might feel good, but you'll just get more worked up. Photo: Getty

One fine day you find a man standing on the corner, soaking in the sunshine. He gets a phone call. His voice quickly moves from a pleasant greeting to confusion, then outrage.

The source of his unhappiness has hung up on him.

So he calls somebody else. And launches into a tirade:

“You’ll never guess what’s happened…”

And off he goes ranting and raving, repeating himself. Until he’s abandoned again.

Then he calls someone else. “You’ll never bloody guess what’s bloody happened …”

The call ends. He seems to have calmed down. Then he marches off, with every step he builds himself once more into a rage, shouting at himself. As if he’s gone deaf. Which is pretty much the case. Deaf to reason.

Which brings us to a new study from Ohio State University. About anger and how to tamp it down. And why you shouldn’t let it get out of hand in the first place.

Letting off steam – is it a myth?

Researchers analysed more than 150 studies involving more than 10,000 rage-soaked participants and found that blowing off steam when angry is counter-productive.

“I think it’s really important to bust the myth that if you’re angry you should blow off steam – get it off your chest,” said senior author Brad Bushman, professor of communication at Ohio State.

“Venting anger might sound like a good idea, but there’s not a shred of scientific evidence to support catharsis theory.”

To reduce anger, said Bushman, “it is better to engage in activities that decrease arousal levels”.

Which means deep breathing, meditation, or giving yourself mindfully to clouds or puppies or whatever else comes calmly to hand.

Even that old chestnut, counting to 10, is a winner. Whatever it takes to lower physiological arousal.

“Despite what popular wisdom may suggest,” he said, “even going for a run is not an effective strategy because it increases arousal levels and ends up being counterproductive.”

In other words, you rev yourself up with every slap of the feet on the pavement.

Rage rooms are increasingly popular

The study was led by first author Sophie Kjærvik. The paper, her doctorate dissertation, was published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.

Kjærvik, now a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University, said the work “was inspired in part by the rising popularity of rage rooms that promote smashing things (such as glass, plates and electronics) to work through angry feelings”.

She said she wanted “to debunk the whole theory of expressing anger as a way of coping with it”.

Further, she wanted “to show that reducing arousal, and actually the physiological aspect of it, is really important”.

The physiological aspect

According to the Victorian government’s Better Health Channel, an online health advice service, anger triggers the body’s ‘fight or flight’ response.

The adrenal glands flood the body with stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The brain shunts blood away from the gut and towards the muscles, in preparation for physical exertion.

Heart rate, blood pressure and respiration increase, the body temperature rises and the skin perspires. The mind is sharpened and focused.

All of which can lead a person rapidly into trouble.

The meta-analysis

The researchers included studies that were guided by ‘the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory’, which assumes that all emotions, including anger, consist of physiological arousal and ‘mental meanings’.

In other words, there is a biological response to emotions, including anger. (The mental meanings is what you perceive or reason to be going on.)

Kjærvik and Bushman focused on examining arousal-increasing activities, such as hitting a bag, jogging, cycling and swimming. And arousal-decreasing activities such as deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation and yoga.

They found that arousal-decreasing activities were effective at fending off the fury in labs and field settings, using digital platforms or in-person instruction.

Participants included college students and non-students, people with and without a criminal history, and individuals with and without intellectual disabilities.

Arousal-decreasing activities that were effective at lowering anger across the board included deep breathing, relaxation, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and taking a timeout.

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