There is a common belief that as far as emotions are concerned, it is better for us to let it all out, rather than keeping it bottled up inside. The 'better out than in' philosophy of emotion regulation pervades many areas of therapy as well as common understanding. But is it true of every emotion, and in particular is it true of anger?
The idea of 'letting it all out' goes back at least as far as the ancient greeks with what they called catharsis. Catharsis, or a cathartic release means letting it all out and is considered to be therapeutic by many people. The modern idea of catharsis comes from the Greek word katharsis, which literally translated means a cleansing or purging. According to catharsis theory, acting aggressively or even viewing aggression is an effective way to purge angry and aggressive feelings.
Many books and self-help gurus suggest that people vent their anger either as it arises or vent their anger by punching pillows or some other inanimate object to rid themselves of the emotion as well as the negative effects (stress) of the emotion. The question is, does venting really help with emotions like anger?
Brad Bushman from Iowa state university conducted a series of research studies where he looked at this very issue. He looked at 600 people (300 men and 300 women) in whom he provoked anger by getting another participant to unfairly criticise some work they had done. They finished the wholly negative evaluation of their work by saying "this is the worst (piece of work) I have ever seen"!
After reading the evaluation, the participants rated how much they wanted to perform each of 10 activities on a list. Included in this list of activities was "hitting a punching bag." Other activities were relatively passive, included playing solitaire, reading a short story, watching a comedy, and playing a computer game. Ratings were made on a 10-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all) to 10 (extremely).
One third of the subjects where then allowed to punch a punch bag (and if they wanted, see a picture of the person who had criticised their work so unfairly), one third were distracted and one third did nothing.
In short the participants who were allowed to vent their anger actually became significantly angrier and more aggressive than the people who were either distracted or did nothing.
There are largely two different strategies people use when they get angry. They either turn the issue or person they are angry about over and over in their heads, thinking about it and feeling the emotions, or they distract themselves with something else. Bushman found that people who tended to ruminate or pick over the issue and think about the other person also got angrier as time went on compared to those who were given a distraction or even those who were given nothing to do.
Considering that the definition of emotional resilience is the ability to be able to bounce back to a productive emotional state as quickly as possible, rumination and venting, at least as far as anger is concerned, are not helpful strategies. You are far better distracting yourself and getting on with something else. Churning stuff over and over only makes the situation worse.
I will talk a bit more about the effects of rumination on other emotions like anxiety and depression in my next blog.
Bushman, B.J. (2002) Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Pers Soc Psychol Bull June 2002 vol. 28 no. 6 724-731 doi: 10.1177/0146167202289002