Imagine: you’re crawling home from work on the motorway after a long and stressful day. The roads are congested and the weather is gloomy. Every time you switch lanes, the traffic grinds magically to a halt, as all the other lanes begin to flow freely. The radio cuts to a commercial. It’s windy.
And then it happens.
The idiot in the big SUV across from you won’t let you in. But you need to take this exit. You can feel the anger – the rage – swelling up from deep within you, as he still won’t let you in. How are you going to respond? Will you yell something? Will you lean on your horn? Will you gesture at him?
What about other situations in life? When someone or something hurts you, how do you respond?
Venting only makes you angrier
If you would usually react in one of the ways described above, then you’re certainly not alone. But a number of studies have shown that venting your anger in the form of an outburst will actually only serve to make your anger worse. Dr Dianne Tice, from Florida State University, describes it like this:
Anger that is expressed angrily begets more anger. Letting it out is like throwing gasoline on a fire. The only way to handle anger is to control it, and then either use it or forget it.
Jeffrey Lohr, from the University of Arkansas, puts it this way:
Punching pillows and breaking dishes doesn’t reduce subsequent anger expression. That, the research shows clearly.
We are not steam kettles
So what’s going on – isn’t it just common sense that “letting it all out” is an important step in dealing with negative emotions?
Not so, says Stefan Klein in his fascinating book The Science of Happiness. He asserts that this common misconception about the need to release anger (or tears) arises from an outdated nineteenth-century notion that the brain is like a steam kettle, in which negative feelings create pressure that needs to be released. But Klein says that this is simply not true:
Over forty years ago, controlled studies showed that fits of rage are more likely to intensify anger… Our heads do not represent steam kettles, and our brains entail a much more sophisticated system than can be accounted for by images taken from nineteenth-century technology.
Of course, looking for ways to avoid outbursts of anger is anything but a new idea. Jesus told his disciples to “turn the other cheek”; Paul encouraged the Roman church to “overcome evil with good”; and Buddha taught that “hatred does not cease by hatred, but only by love”.
Of course this is not to say that anger has no place at all – used well it can spur us on to positive change, or to helping others. For example, in this context Daniel Goleman talks about constructive anger. But anger in the form of venting or rage tends not to resolve any underlying misunderstandings or disagreements.
So the next time somebody cuts you off in traffic, or won’t let you change lanes, maybe take a moment to think about the negative effects of venting your anger. You’ll certainly feel better afterwards if you can manage to keep your cool!
In a future article we’ll look at some practical and helpful steps that you can take for resolving your anger positively.