Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Think venting will calm you down? Think again.

Here's a news article summarizing some research done on venting - we might call it tests of the catharsis hypothesis. Contrary to the old catharsis hypothesis, the bottom line is that venting does not work. Individuals given a chance to vent end up feeling angrier and behaving more aggressively than if they had not done so in the first place. This is research that is especially timely given all the ways we have at our disposal to vent thanks to the miracle of mobile devices and social media. Venting may even feel good at the time. Unfortunately, as decades of research show, venting has damaging consequences.

So where does this idea of venting come from? I mentioned the so-called catharsis hypothesis. It was initially an idea of Freud's regarding emotional energy. Presumably, emotions such as anger would be discharged, hence leaving the patient feeling better. The idea was picked up by neobehaviorists (in particular the Yale Group back in the 1930s and 1940s) as a means of examining the potential reinforcement value of certain motivated behaviors. In order for catharsis to work when it comes to a powerful emotion, such as anger, one needs to demonstrate that individuals are demonstrably less angry and behave less aggressively than they were before they started venting their anger or rage. However, as research by Russ Geen, Brad Bushman, and others has shown in experiment after experiment, what actually happens is that anger and aggression levels increase. What appears to happen is that when a person vents, they are rehearsing the same negative behaviors that we'd ordinarily want to avoid (e.g., screaming, yelling, etc.). When such behaviors are rehearsed they become more frequently used in the future.

By the way, these are effects that we can observe very easily in our own daily lives if we are willing to look. I spent some time, for example, in training retreats for leading peer counseling groups in which many of the techniques we practiced were ones that included venting (many of our faculty supervisors were Freudian in orientation, as it turned out). One thing that I noticed repeatedly was that sessions where individuals would act out their anger tended not to calm down but rather become more intensely angry. The outcome would be best described - in the parlance of our times - as a fail.

So what to do? The usual advice my professional friends and colleagues will give is to count to 10, take a relaxing walk, unplug (i.e., get away from the computer or mobile) or practically any relaxing activity other than vent anger. Take some time to calm down, and then tackle whatever issue is in need of tackling when you are thinking more clearly and can control impulses. I see nothing wrong with stating that something is angering you, but then taking the focus away from the intensity of the emotion experienced and instead concentrate on finding solutions to the anger-inducing situation. In other words, it is one thing to experience emotions such as anger and to have those experiences validated. That is actually healthy. It is quite another thing to act on the impulses created by anger. As an old friend might have put it a couple decades ago, when in doubt, chill out.

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