“Don’t hold it in,” people say. And people do tend to say they feel better after venting anger or frustration. But odd as it may sound, psychology research hasn’t confirmed the ancient idea that expressing an emotion makes it easier to bear. Venting can heighten anger and grief. It can also back-fire, big-time, if you vent at the wrong time, to other people, spreading the damage.
Angry emails record your anger in ways you can’t control. They tend to sound angrier than you might in person. They may be saved long past your anger. They may be misinterpreted — and forwarded. In work settings, they may hurt your reputation, pegging you as a complainer or emotionally volatile.
Both Aristotle and Freud subscribed to the idea of catharsis, the benefits of getting “your feelings out.” Therapists tend to agree, as well. But whether or not it’s good for you to express your feelings privately, going public should be a well-considered strategy. Emails, texts, and IM messages can feel private if you’re in your bedroom or huddling in a corner over a smartphone. But they’re no longer necessarily private once you hit send.
Electronics has 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 comments 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 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, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
Remember that insults never changed anyone’s mind. Venting, however, could well affect yours….for the worse. According to Brad Bushman, PhD, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University in Columbus, it can make you angrier and potentially more aggressive. In one of his studies, after 600 college students wrote an essay on abortion, they got a negative critique from someone who pretended to hold the opposite point of view. One group of students hit a punching bag expressing their anger at the person who critiqued them. Another set hit a punching bag — but simply for exercise. 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.
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 helps reduce anger, too.
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 purge yourself of sadness. 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.
September 09, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA