We all have that one friend who just won’t stop whining about his breakup. No matter how many times you hear him out, your support never seems to be enough. He seems to enjoy a pity party. It cheers him up for a while, but he inevitably gets angrier with each passing day. It becomes a burden. One so heavy that you begin to avoid him.
Sigmund Freud theorized long ago that bottling up emotions could lead to serious mental health problems. So get it off your chest, he advised. In the world of psychology, this is known as catharsis theory. But that’s not what the latest science shows. In fact, the theory has been long discredited. But for many people, “venting is good for you” is still considered conventional wisdom.
It’s time to set the record straight.
A compelling 2002 study published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin outlines the dangers of venting. Researchers divided 600 college students into three groups: distraction, rumination and control. Each group was asked to write a short essay on abortion. Participants were told that their essay would be evaluated by another participant—their so-called partner in the study. There was no partner. The researchers provided negative feedbacks to every essay. The unsuspecting participants thought their partners had given them bad reviews.
The theory has been long discredited. But for many people, “venting is good for you” is still considered conventional wisdom.
The participants in the rumination group—now noticeably upset by the negative feedback—were asked to hit a punching bag while they thought about their partner. A photo of the partner (a random person) was displayed on a computer screen. The distraction group was also assigned to hit a punching bag, but they were asked to visualize their fitness goals during the task while looking at a photo of a physically fit person. The control group did nothing.
Following the venting exercise, participants completed a survey detailing their anger levels, and then they participated in another task to gauge their levels of aggression. After all, according to Freud, they should be calmer by now. People in the control group were the calmest after the study. Conversely, the rumination group was the angriest and most aggressive.
Related: How to Control Your Anger
Similarly, a 2013 study found that people who routinely visited and posted on rant websites were more likely to develop anger-management issues. They picked fights easily and received frequent warnings about their behavior. Many of the participants admitted that posting on ranting sites made them feel better.
It begs the question: Why does it feel good to release our anger by venting?
“When people vent their anger, they want to hit, scream or shout, and it feels good to do that, and so they think, Oh, it feels good it must work,” says Brad Bushman, professor of communication and psychology at Ohio State University. He was the lead author of the 2002 venting study. “But it also feels good to take street drugs and eat donuts. But just because something feels good doesn’t mean it’s healthy.”
Venting makes you angrier, and it could jeopardize your personal relationships. Imagine this: You’ve had an argument with a colleague at work. You come home and complain about the incident to your partner. The act of complaining might provide momentary relief, but your anger doesn’t subside. In that state, you might even channel your anger toward your partner, saying or doing things you’ll later regret.
“It’s OK to be angry. We don’t have control over when other people make us angry. But we do have control over how we respond.”
“People who vent are angrier and more aggressive not just against people they know or love, but even against total strangers,” Bushman warns.
Of course there are problems that need discussion. “Venting is when you express your anger just to get rid of it,” Bushman says. “It’s OK to be angry. We don’t have control over when other people make us angry. But we do have control over how we respond.”
So how do we deal with anger? Bushman suggests the delay tactic, among others. If someone’s temper hits the roof, their blood pressure and heart rate rise rapidly. This is known as a state of high arousal. “Arousal decreases over time,” he says. “So that’s why delay works. When you count to 10, it goes down. When you count to 100, it goes down even more.”
Bushman also recommends what he calls incompatible response. “You can’t feel anger and love at the same time or anger or humor at the same time,” he says. “So you try to push these angry feelings out.”
For example, playing with a puppy invokes feelings of love. You can’t possibly feel frustration while petting a golden retriever puppy. If you help out someone in need, you will experience feelings of empathy and compassion, and it’s impossible to be jaded in that state.
Although Bushman advocates for a venting-free life, David M Reiss, M.D., a San Diego-based psychiatrist, sees another perspective. “There’s certainly an advantage to acknowledging your emotions and being able to express them,” Reiss says.
Reiss believes there is a right way to vent: Find the right person. “It has to be someone who is not just going to join you in the anger but is also going to help you to come to terms with it and help you calm down,” he says.
“If you vent to someone who is going to validate you whether your feelings are valid or not, that’s going be destructive.”
Reiss adds that your co-venting sessions shouldn’t snowball into lets-get-angry-at-everything fests. Think: a bunch of colleagues slamming their boss at an after-work pub.
“If you vent to someone who is going to validate you whether your feelings are valid or not, that’s going be destructive,” he says.
Also try some calming tactics that don’t require scientific evidence: listening to your favorite music, watching a feel-good movie or binging on cat videos on YouTube. After all, laughter is the best medicine.