One of the best things I’ve ever read about getting rid of anger is Carol Tavris‘s 1983 Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. Although Tavris’s book was considered controversial at the time, her extensive research supported my own biases. ”Talking out an emotion doesn’t reduce it, it rehearses it,” she said. “People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.”
Anatole Broyard, The New York Times, summarized some of her suggestions for getting rid of anger: “We can analyze and understand our anger; we can express it and go beyond it; we can use it, instead of letting it use us. As a last resort, we can, like the Papuans of New Guinea, do ‘a mad dance,’ a solution that quite a few of us are already practicing.”
In her New York Times review Jane E. Brody added another important piece: “Dr. Tavris does not believe anger should never be expressed. Rather, she limits the circumstances to those that satisfy three conditions: when anger represents a legitimate plea for justice, when it is directed at someone who is the cause of the anger and when it would result in a correction of the offense or, at the very least, would not cause retaliation. Otherwise, she suggests counting to 10.”
Despite the evidence, a belief still persists, however, that anger is best handled via some kind of dramatic venting. As recently as 2009, in their bestseller 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, authors Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio, and Barry L. Beyerstein listed “It’s Better to Express Anger Than to Hold It In” as Myth #2. (Number 1? “We Only Use 10% of our Brains.”)
Why is this myth so popular? In all likelihood, people often mistakenly attribute the fact that they feel better after they express anger to catharsis, rather than to the fact that anger usually subsides on its own after awhile (Lohr, Olatunji, Baumeister, & Bushman, 2007).
From noted anger researcher Brad Bushman (Psychology Today): “Venting is just practicing how to behave more aggressively, such as by hitting, kicking, screaming, and shouting.” One might feel good afterward, but it’s not likely to change the way you feel overall.
Even physical exercise, he says, isn’t helpful. “The reason physical exercise doesn’t work is that it increases rather than decreases physiological arousal, such as heart rate and blood pressure. When people become angry, their physiological arousal increases. (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 and people feel too exhausted to aggress.)”
For getting rid of anger Bushman endorses such things as relaxing, counting to 10, reframing the problem or conflict, distraction, and detachment. Also, “petting a puppy, watching a comedy, making love, or performing a good deed…because those acts are incompatible with anger and therefore they make the angry state impossible to sustain.”