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‘Venting’ your anger actually does more harm than good

Anger is a complex emotion that, if not managed properly, can lead to aggression and stress. While the immediate gratification of venting might seem appealing, recent research highlights the ineffectiveness of such approaches in truly diminishing feelings of anger.

Instead, strategies that focus on reducing physiological arousal — essentially, calming the body and mind — prove to be far more beneficial.

Expressing anger: The venting paradox explained

Brad Bushman, a professor of communication at The Ohio State University, emphasizes the importance of dispelling the myth that venting anger is beneficial. Contrary to the catharsis theory, which suggests that expressing anger helps to release it, Bushman points out that there is no scientific evidence supporting this notion.

“Venting anger might sound like a good idea, but it’s actually counterproductive,” he explains. Activities that decrease arousal levels, such as deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, and yoga, are highlighted as more effective alternatives.

“To reduce anger, it is better to engage in activities that decrease arousal levels,” Bushman says. “Despite what popular wisdom may suggest, even going for a run is not an effective strategy because it increases arousal levels and ends up being counterproductive.”

Effective anger management strategies that work

The significance of these findings comes from a comprehensive review conducted by Sophie Kjærvik as part of her dissertation at Ohio State. Published in the Clinical Psychology Review, the study analyzes data from over 150 studies involving more than 10,000 participants.

Kjærvik, now a postdoctoral fellow at Virginia Commonwealth University, was motivated by the growing popularity of “rage rooms” and sought to debunk the concept of expressing anger as a coping mechanism. “Reducing arousal, and actually the physiological aspect of it, is really important,” she notes.

The research distinguishes between arousal-increasing activities, like jogging and hitting a bag, and arousal-decreasing activities, such as relaxation techniques and mindfulness. The findings are clear: activities that help lower the body’s arousal state are universally effective in reducing anger.

Science of venting and anger management

This is true across various settings, whether digital or in-person, and among diverse populations, including college students, individuals with a criminal history, and those with intellectual disabilities.

Interestingly, the study also found that some activities traditionally thought to increase arousal, such as yoga, can have calming effects due to their emphasis on controlled breathing and focused attention.

“It was really interesting to see that progressive muscle relaxation and just relaxation in general might be as effective as approaches such as mindfulness and meditation,” Kjærvik said. “And yoga, which can be more arousing than meditation and mindfulness, is still a way of calming and focusing on your breath that has the similar effect in reducing anger.”

Calm, cool and collected is the way

This research not only contributes to our understanding of anger management and the act of venting, but also offers practical advice for dealing with stress and aggression.

With many arousal-decreasing interventions being free or inexpensive and readily available, individuals have a variety of options at their fingertips. From downloading an app to watching a YouTube video, strategies for managing anger have never been more accessible.

“Certain physical activities that increase arousal may be good for your heart, but they’re definitely not the best way to reduce anger,” Bushman said. “It’s really a battle because angry people want to vent, but our research shows that any good feeling we get from venting actually reinforces aggression.”

In today’s fast-paced and often stressful society, understanding and applying these insights can make a significant difference in how we manage anger and aggression. By focusing on calming strategies that are both effective and accessible, individuals can find healthier ways to cope with anger, benefiting both themselves and those around them.

More about physiological arousal

As discussed above, physiological arousal plays a critical role in how we experience emotions and stress, acting as the body’s immediate response to various stimuli. Understanding this process is key to managing our reactions and improving our overall well-being.

Physiological arousal, anger, and venting

Physiological arousal refers to the physical manifestations of our body’s response to stimuli, including emotions, stress, and threats.

It encompasses a range of bodily changes such as increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, rapid breathing, and the release of adrenaline. These changes prepare the body for a “fight or flight” response, equipping us to either confront or escape from perceived dangers.

ANS and the science behind the response

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) governs physiological arousal. This part of the nervous system operates largely outside of our conscious control, managing vital functions like heart rate, digestion, and respiratory rate.

The ANS consists of two main components: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system triggers arousal, acting as a gas pedal that prepares the body for action. In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system acts like a brake, calming the body down after the threat has passed.

Impact on health and Behavior

While physiological arousal is crucial for survival, chronic activation can lead to health problems. Prolonged exposure to stressors without adequate recovery can result in continuous high arousal, contributing to anxiety, depression, heart disease, and other health issues. Understanding how to manage arousal is therefore essential for maintaining mental and physical health.

Managing physiological arousal and anger without venting

Effective management of physiological arousal involves both reducing unnecessary triggers and employing strategies to calm the body. Techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, and yoga can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing arousal and promoting relaxation. Regular physical activity and adequate sleep also play vital roles in regulating the body’s stress response.

In summary, physiological arousal is a fundamental aspect of our emotional and stress responses, deeply intertwined with our health and well-being. By recognizing the signs of heightened arousal and employing strategies to manage it, we can improve our resilience to stress, enhance our emotional regulation, and support our overall health. Understanding and managing physiological arousal empowers us to lead more balanced and fulfilling lives.

The full study was published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.


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