“Let it out,” goes the common wisdom. “If you don’t vent your anger, it will just keep bothering you.” This kind of advice dates at least back to Freud, who believed that negative emotions build up like water behind a dam and must be released if a person wants to get relief. But psychological research in more than a century since Freud’s time has not supported this idea: instead of letting go of anger, venting may really be a way to hang onto it.
The problem with theory that venting anger helps stems from the idea that emotions build up and are retained in some kind of raw state. But emotions consist of a variety of kinds of activity throughout the brain and the rest of the body (see “How emotions work“), especially in the specific thoughts we are thinking (like “People like that shouldn’t be allowed to drive!” or “I look like an idiot in this shirt”) and in various chemicals released in our bodies, like testosterone, which tends to increase aggressive and arousal; adrenaline, which kicks off our fight-or-flight response; and seratonin, which helps regulate mood–to name just a few. Realizing that emotion is largely made up of fleeting thoughts and temporary chemical states, it begins to be clear that we can’t really “store” emotions in the same way that our bodies store nutrients or even in the same way we store memories. It is possible to keep anger (and other kinds of damaging emotions) going over a long time through self-talk, but this is just another form of “rumination,” the same kind of thing we’re doing when we vent anger.
Rumination, what we’re doing both when we vent anger and when we keep reminding ourselves of it, means “chewing over” an emotional experience we’ve had–re-experiencing it. Acting angry to vent an emotion is therefore a way of dwelling and obsessing on the emotion that we’re trying to get rid of. Even doing nothing is, it turns out, a more effective way to deal with anger than venting.
There’s a good body of psychological research to support this idea, much of which tries to find the benefit of venting anger and finds no evidence of it. If you’re interested in reading more on the subject, for instance, you might want to the Dr. Brad J. Bushman’s paper “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding.”
So if venting doesn’t help to fix anger, what does? Focusing on someone or something you love is one approach: see “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.” Another is to become aware of your self-talk and to repair broken ideas: see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.”
Look for more articles on the topic of anger over coming weeks. I’ve dug up a variety of information on the subject that I hope you’ll find as interesting as I find it.
Photo by amanky