Anger Management

Catharsis theory fits in this second approach because it holds that expressing anger produces a healthy release of emotion and is therefore good for the psyche. Catharsis theory, which can be traced back through Sigmund Freud to Aristotle, is elegant and appealing. Unfortunately, the facts and findings do not show that venting one’s anger has positive value. It harms the self and others. Expressing anger is linked to higher risk of heart disease (e.g., Miller, Smith, Turner, Guijarro, & Hallet, 1996). Expressing anger also increases aggression against others (Geen & Quanty, 1977). Even among people who believe in the value of venting and catharsis, and even when people enjoy their venting and feel some satisfaction from it, aggression becomes more likely after venting, even against innocent bystanders (Bushman, Baumeister, & Stack, 1999).

One variation of venting is intense physical exercise. When angry, some people go running or try some other form of physical exercise. Research shows that although exercise is good for your heart, it is not good for reducing anger (e.g., Bushman, 2002). The reason exercise doesn’t work is that it increases rather than decreases physiological arousal levels such as heart rate and blood pressure. (It is possible, however, that prolonged exercise will eventually reduce anger, if it continues until the person is extremely tired — because then the arousal is finally dispersed.)

There are exceptions to the general finding that expressing anger increases aggression. Recent research has shown that expressing anger can even reduce aggressive thoughts when people are trying to achieve a different goal (e.g., Denzler, Förster & Liberman, 2009). In general, however, venting anger is like using gasoline to put out a fire: It just feeds the flame. Venting keeps arousal levels high and keeps aggressive thoughts and angry feelings alive. Maybe you have heard of the joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer is: “Practice! Practice! Practice!” Well, “How do you become an angry, aggressive person?” The answer is the same: “Practice! Practice! Practice!” Venting is just practicing how to behave more aggressively, by hitting, kicking, screaming, or shouting.

The third approach to deal with anger is to try to get rid of it. This solution is important because the problems of both the other approaches (i.e., stuffing and venting) are due to the person staying angry. The key thing is to stop feeling angry. All emotions, including anger, consist of bodily states (such as arousal) and mental meanings. To get rid of anger, you can work on either of those. Anger can be reduced by getting rid of the arousal state, such as by relaxing or by counting to ten before responding. Mental tactics can also reduce anger, such as by reframing the problem or conflict, or by distracting oneself and turning one’s attention to other, more pleasant topics. For example, rather than being angered by a friend’s rude comment, one might reinterpret the comment as a sign of the friend’s exhaustion rather than as a personal attack on oneself (e.g., Memedovic, Grisham, Denson, & Moulds, 2010). Certain behaviors can also help get rid of anger. For example, petting a puppy, watching a comedy, making love, or performing a good deed can help, because those acts are incompatible with anger and therefore they make the angry state impossible to sustain (e.g., Baron, 1976).

In summary, if a pressure cooker is used as a metaphor for anger, there are three ways to deal with the buildup of steam (DiGiuseppe, 1995). One way is to wait until the pressure cooker explodes. A second way is reduce the pressure by periodically siphoning off some of the steam. The third (and best) way is to lower the flame and reduce the heat!

References

Aarts, H., Ruys, K. I., Veling, H., Renes, R.A., J. H. B. de Groot, A. M. van Nunen, & Geertjes S. (2010). The art of anger: Reward context turns avoidance responses to anger-related objects into approach. Psychological Science, 21, 1406-1410.

Averill, J. (1982). Anger and aggression: An essay on emotion. New York: Springer-Verlag.

Baron, R. A. (1976). The reduction of human aggression: A field study of the influence of incompatible reactions. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 6, 260–274.

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