Why ‘Blowing Off Steam’ Backfires

Venting anger through hitting punching bags or rage rooms is ineffective and can increase aggression, according to research.

By: John Mac G. | The Epoch Times

The American people, we’re told, are living in an “anger incubator,” with as many as 10 million having serious anger issues—more than the entire population of New York City, the largest city in the United States.

This begs the question: What is the best method for coping with anger?

For some, venting may seem like a good idea. The theory of catharsis, a widely accepted and influential concept, suggests that expressing anger or venting can enhance an individual’s mental well-being. The term “catharsis” originates from the Greek word “katharsis,” which directly translates to purification or cleansing.

However, instead of having a cleansing effect, venting has more of a toxic one, according to a new study from Ohio State University.

“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,” Brad Bushman, professor of communication at Ohio State University and the study’s senior author, said in a press release.

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

Mr. Bushman knows what he’s talking about. He has been studying this particularly potent emotion for decades. Over two decades ago, he published a paper aptly titled “Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame?” Spoiler alert: It feeds the flame.

Venting Is Like Pouring Gasoline on Fire

In the 2002 study, participants were divided into two groups. One group hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who angered them (rumination/catharsis group), while the other group thought about getting physically fit (distraction group).

Afterward, they reported their anger levels and had the opportunity to administer loud noise blasts to the person who angered them. A control group without a punching bag was also included.

The results showed that the people in the rumination group reported feeling angrier than the distraction or control groups.

Furthermore, the rumination group displayed the highest levels of aggression, followed by the distraction and control groups, respectively. Surprisingly, rumination actually increased anger and aggression rather than reduced it.

Interestingly, doing nothing at all was found to be more effective in managing anger than venting it. Mr. Bushman argued that “venting to reduce anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire—it only feeds the flame.”

Rather than providing a release, venting anger stokes more aggressive thoughts and emotions. This, in turn, makes people act out more aggressively as well. Far from improving one’s mood, the research shows that venting does not lead to a more positive emotional state.

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A Surprising Way to Reduce Anger

In their most recent study, Mr. Bushman and Sophie Lyngesen Kjærvik, the lead author and a postdoctoral research fellow at the Injury & Violence Prevention Program at Virginia Commonwealth University, reviewed over 150 studies with more than 10,000 participants.

They discovered that reducing physiological arousal is the most effective way to decrease anger. In contrast, activities that heightened arousal, such as jogging, did not affect rage and, in some cases, even exacerbated it.

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

Forget Rage Rooms

The study was inspired in part by the proliferation of rage rooms, which encourage individuals to release their anger by breaking items like glass, plates, and electronics, according to Ms. Kjærvik. Today, there are hundreds of such rage rooms across the country.

The researchers included participants of all ages from diverse backgrounds. The study adhered to the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory, which suggests that emotions, including anger, comprise physiological arousal and cognitive interpretations. To manage anger, one can address either of these components.

While previous meta-analyses have concentrated on altering cognitive interpretations through cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), Ms. Kjærvik and Mr. Bushman believed that investigating the role of arousal would address a crucial gap in understanding anger resolution.

Their analysis explored activities that increase arousal (e.g., physical exercise) and those that decrease arousal (e.g., mindfulness, meditation).

The findings indicated that activities reducing arousal effectively mitigated anger in various settings and populations. These activities included deep breathing, relaxation techniques, mindfulness, meditation, slow-flow yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and simply taking a timeout.

In other words, instead of opting for a rage room, availing oneself of a quiet space appears to make more sense.

The discovery that increasing arousal did not alleviate anger aligns with the work of Daniel Goleman, author of the best-selling book “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ,” released in 1995.

Mr. Goleman warned readers not to succumb to venting and “the seductive nature of anger.” He explained that episodes of anger heighten the brain’s level of arousal, leading to what he termed “emotional flooding,” which results in incoherent thoughts and an inability to reason.

The next time you feel angry, whatever you do, try not to vent.

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Continue reading …

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The Epoch Times

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