Everyone gets angry sometimes. Anger is a normal human response to certain stressors in life. What is done with that anger can have a significant impact on people. There are arguments both for and against venting anger or keeping it all inside.
Venting Anger and Catharsis Theory
The famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud, was a proponent of the catharsis theory. Catharsis theory suggests that releasing negative emotions through aggressive actions will reduce aggressive tendencies. According to this theory, bottling up anger and frustration will lead to personal harm. This theory purports it is positive and necessary to release these emotions through aggressive acts, ideally something innocuous such as punching a bag or throwing a pillow.
Examples of Cathartic Behavior
There are many examples of cathartic behavior. Catharsis simply refers to the purging of emotions. Specific examples of cathartic behavior include:
- Playing a violent video game
- Stomping feet
- Punching an in-animate object or even aggressively attacking another person
Everybody can probably remember times when they were angered to the point that involved some sort of cathartic venting. The question is, does this type of behavior make people feel better or worse?
Research Disputing Benefits of Venting
There has been much research to suggest that venting anger is actually not good for people. According to Psychology Today, venting anger may actually make the anger worse by reinforcing a negative response.
Iowa State University Study
A study was conducted at Iowa State University to compare feelings of anger between three groups of college students. The students were asked to write an opinion essay, which was to be evaluated by another student. The researchers wrote feedback to the essay that was inflammatory and insulting. They manipulated the participants into believing the feedback had been written by another student.
The first student group was instructed to take out their aggression on a punching bag, imagining the bag to be the student who had written the negative feedback. A second student group was instructed to contemplate getting physically fit as they hit the punching bags. A final student group was not provided punching bags and told to sit quietly for two minutes after reading the derogatory feedback.
All three groups were then given a questionnaire that measured their level of anger. The results demonstrated that the first student group displayed the most anger, although the first and the second groups demonstrated equal amounts of aggression. The third group reported the least amount of anger and aggression after the experiment. The researchers concluded allowing the venting of anger in an aggressive way was like pouring gasoline on a fire and lead to increased feelings of anger and displays of aggression.
Dr. Lohr, a psychologist from the University of Arkansas, published a retrospective study looking at research on anger expression dating as far back as 1959. His work appears as a chapter in the book Anger, Aggressions, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence. In study after study, Lohr and his colleagues report the act of venting anger makes feelings of anger increase, not decrease. Dr. Lohr concludes encouraging the expression of anger as a means to reduce anger is a dangerous practice that should be avoided.
Venting and the Internet
A recent study examined the use of internet rant sites and their effect on a person's mood. The investigators instructed participants to read online rants written by others for five minutes. Participants were also instructed to write a rant of their own. The mood of the participants was evaluated after these activities. The results indicate that reading others rants had a negative effect on mood. Writing a rant lead to increased feelings of anger. The researchers concluded venting frustrations through these types of online forums leads to increased feelings of anger and decreased happiness.
Physiology of Anger
According to Dr. Debra Moore, the brain releases certain chemicals during the first moments of anger that increase excitability. This surge of chemicals only lasts a brief period, unless people prolong it by dwelling on the event of behaving aggressively, which can cause continued chemical rush and lead to inappropriate expressions of anger and rage. Dr. Moore suggests that involving oneself in calming activities, such as going on a walk or breathing exercises, can change human physiology and prevent episodes of rage brought on by anger.
Other Strategies to Manage Anger
The American Psychological Association agrees that venting anger is not therapeutic and actually serves to potentiate the angry feelings. They offer other strategies as successful ways to better manage angry thoughts:
- Communication: Often, it is miscommunication that leads to anger in the first place. Trying to communicate camly with the person making one angry to dispel any misunderstood messages may help diffuse anger.
- Relaxation: Relaxation techniques, such as simple deep breathing exercises, are known to slow the heart rate and calm the mind.
- Cognitive Restructuring: When individuals are angry, their thoughts can become exaggerated and irrational. Replacing irrational thoughts with a calmer logical thought can dispel much anger.
- Problem Solving: Often anger stems from being confronted by a problem and not being able to find a resolution to it. Sometimes, a simple focus on how best to navigate the problem, even if that means no immediate resolution, can lead to a sense of calm and purpose.
- Environment: Sometimes, a simple change in environment can ease feelings of anger. Simply put, sometimes it is best to just walk away from the situation that angers you and move to a physical place of calm, such as a park, a break room at work, a country road, or any place that brings you calm feelings.
It is likely that everyone will find themselves in situations where they are angry and feel a need to vent or let off steam. While this can feel good at the time, the research does suggest other ways of handling anger may be better at reducing angry feelings. Everyone is different and finding what works best for each individual is important. If you find anger leading to destructive behavior, it is important to find better ways to manage this.