Angry? You could call a friend and vent. You could punch a pillow or break a plate. Or you could even record a rant on a website like RantRampage.com. Unfortunately, you may be doing more harm than good; research has found that venting actually makes your anger worse.
"Venting may make you feel different in the moment, but the change in emotional state doesn’t necessarily feel better; it may just feel less bad," says Jeffrey Lohr, psychology professor at the University of Arkansas. Lohr coauthored the 2007 study: "The Pseudopsychology of Venting in the Treatment of Anger: Implications and Alternatives for Mental Health Practice," published in Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Reviewing the results of anger expression research—including the earliest experiments in 1959—he and his co-researchers found that venting lacks scientific support, and "directly challenges the integrity of mental health practice and places the public at risk."
"People don’t break wind in elevators more than they have to," says Lohr. "Venting anger is an emotional expression. It’s similar to emotional farting in a closed area. It sounds like a good idea, but it’s dead wrong."
Many other psychologists agree. In a 2013 study "Anger on the Internet," published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, researchers found that users of rant sites are more anger-prone in general and more often participate in negative behaviors such as verbal and physical fights, as well as reckless driving. Instead of simply letting off steam, users are fueling their fire.
From an evolutionary perspective, anger is a normal emotion that functioned as a response to threats. The problem with venting is that it’s a negative reinforcement process, says Lohr; anger and hostility are specific emotions and expression of them begets more anger and hostility.
"What people fail to realize is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented," Lohr says. "Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead."
Rather than behaving in an aggressive fashion, Lohr suggests reacting in an assertive fashion. Here are three things you can do to release anger:
Studies have shown that anger dissipates faster when people take deep breaths, relax, or take a timeout, says Lohr. If you’re in a situation where you’re feeling like your emotions are getting out of control, then walk away and take a break. Practice deep breathing exercises or repeat a calming phrase, such as "let it go."
"Any action that makes it impossible to sustain the angry state can help defuse anger," says Lohr.
Instead of anger management skills, Lohr says people need to learn conflict resolution and communication skills. If possible, try not to confront someone in the heat of the moment. Avoid criticizing or blaming the other person, which will only increase tension. And address your concern in a respectful manner, using "I" versus "You" statements. For example, say "I am upset that you scheduled a meeting without consulting me," instead of "You should have talked to me first!" Then be willing to listen to the other person’s response, and identify possible solutions.
"Address the problem in a cooperative fashion," says Lohr. "When you learn to resolve conflict, you learn to be a responsible adult."
Finally, consider venting on paper. The 2008 study "Effects of Written Anger Expression in Chronic Pain Patients," published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found that expressive writing can be a constructive alternative to verbal venting because it can give you a better understanding of the cause of your feelings. Participants in the study who had written about the anger they had as a result of their pain reported less depression and greater feelings of control.
Keep a journal or write letters that you don’t share. Then assess your feelings to determine the cause and possible solutions.
"Make sure that you identify that you’re feeling anger rather than other negative emotions like sadness and depression," says Lohr. "Anger is in no way shape or form like sadness, and depression is anger turned inward. Both sadness and depression are improved by expressing your feelings, getting them validated, and then getting them fixed."