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“Don’t hold it in,” people say. And people do tend to say they feel better after venting anger or frustration. They often feel energized and more creative. But it’s also important to know that venting isn’t a way to calm yourself. In fact, it can heighten anger. It can also backfire, big-time, if you vent at the wrong time, to the wrong people, spreading the damage.
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Angry electronic communications amplify the impact of your anger in ways you can’t control. They tend to sound angrier than you might in person. The reader doesn’t see any body language that could be less threatening, and can resond as if you’re shouting and waving your fists. Electronic communications may be saved long past your anger. They may be misinterpreted—and forwarded. In work or community settings, they easily can hurt your reputation, pegging you as a complainer or emotionally volatile.
You know all this, but it’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment. Emails, texts, and other messages, even social media posts, can feel private if you’re in your bedroom or huddling in a corner over a smartphone. But they’re no longer private once you hit send.
Isn’t it healthiest to express your anger?
Both Aristotle and Freud subscribed to the idea of catharsis, the benefits of getting “your feelings out.” Therapists tend to agree, as well. Suppressing your anger may be linked to illness, and admitting your anger may motivate you to take needed action.
However, if you want to stop feeling angry, an outpouring isn’t the right move, according to a number of researchers. Back in the 1970s, it became popular to punch pillows while shouting as a form of stress relief. Research hasn’t backed up that idea.
In one well-known study from a team led by psychologist Brad Bushman at Ohio State University in Columbus, 600 college students wrote an essay on abortion and then received a negative critique from someone who pretended to hold the opposite point of view. In the next phase, one group of students hit a punching bag expressing their anger at the person who critiqued them. Another group hit a punching bag—but didn’t link it to the abortion exchange. The control group did nothing at all. Afterwards, when the students reported on their moods, choosing among a list of adjectives, the people who had pounded the bag while thinking about the critique were the angriest.
Therapists sometimes encourage patients to express anger as a way of avoiding despair and self-criticism; anger is more energizing. Anger can lead to a burst of tears, and crying can feel good. But again, crying isn’t a reliable way to decrease sadness (See “Is Crying Really Good for You?). Especially if you tend to be depressed, anxious, or confused about the sources of your emotions, some research suggests, you may not feel better after a burst of tears.
Electronics amplify anger
Whether or not it’s good for you to express your feelings privately, going public should be a well-considered strategy.
Electronics have made it easier to vent, removing useful safeguards. In the past, it took more time and effort to vent, which also gave you more opportunity to cool down. You had to pick up the phone or write a letter, find a stamp, and mail it. If you vented in person, you had to face the recipient’s response. Fear isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it keeps you from taking unnecessary risks.
The internet is famously volatile, with tempers flaring, particularly on comment threads. Flame wars set a bad example; it’s easy to get sucked into the free-for-all. You might even fool yourself that you’re exercising your civic duty. But those lengthy monologues tend to entrench commenters into their extreme viewpoints. “When you’re having a conversation in person, who actually gets to deliver a monologue except for people in the movies? Even if you get angry, people are talking back and forth and so eventually you have to calm down and listen so you can have a conversation,” says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and fellow Psychology Today contributor.
Slow it down.
Instead of venting, you might eat a piece of fruit; other research suggests that people have less self-control when their blood sugar is low. As Bushman and his colleagues put it, “a spoonful of sugar helps aggressive and violent behaviors go down.” Praying can help reduce anger, too.
Watch yourself for the feeling that you’re getting trapped in a bad situation. We tend to get angrier when we think that our anger is getting worse, that the danger is increasing and that the window for action is closing.
Psychologist John Riskind, Ph.D., at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, who has studied that sequence of thought, suggests checking in with yourself frequently if your anger relates to an ongoing situation. Are you getting angrier over time? Less angry?
At any one moment, you might label your feelings with an analogy to a speedometer: Are you at 90 mph (boiling, explosive), 50 (agitated and perturbed), or 40 (ruffled or displeased)? If you’re above the speed limit, imagine releasing the gas pedal to slow things down, just as you would driving. Then ask yourself at the lower speed whether the person bothering you is open to a solution.
The bottom line: Know thyself. If venting helps you, it’s an important tool. But slow yourself down and think carefully before you let loose in a text, email, message, or social media post. If you’re determined to respond electronically, wait a couple of hours, or even better, a day or week. Ideally, in that time you can treat yourself to rewarding experiences (a walk, dance class, time with a book, playing with a child) and the trigger to your anger may seem much less important. If it’s clearly important, think about actions you can take. Public venting is rarely your only option. And yes, a text or DM is public. Your receiver can send it to someone else.