Science Solitaire

[Science Solitaire] Want to vent to feel better? Science says ‘think again’

Maria Isabel Garcia
[Science Solitaire] Want to vent to feel better? Science says ‘think again’

Illustration by DR Castuciano

It is handy to think of our increasing anger and frustration as heat inside a pressure cooker. But the physics of pressure cookers does not apply to the emotional cauldrons that we are when we are angry or frustrated.

Punching bags, smashing objects, “shouting” sessions with people who are as angry as you or feed your anger – these are common paths to “relief” that we think will help us reduce the anger and frustration that build up within us in many situations. In other words, they are ways to vent. But does venting really work?

It is handy to think of our increasing anger and frustration as heat inside a pressure cooker. But the physics of pressure cookers does not apply to the emotional cauldrons that we are when we are angry or frustrated. When we get angry or frustrated, negative emotions rise to the fore and the natural tendency (simply because human brains find it easier – it does not mean it is good for us) is to recount the situation that made us angry and find blame in others and the world. When we lash out that way, that is “venting” and studies have shown that it really does not help you change how you feel at that moment and worse, it does not help you recover in the long-term.

A 2019 study, building on previous studies, revealed again that venting does not work. It examined how even “computer-mediated” (via “Messenger”) sessions helped (or did not help) someone who was angry at a situation. In the study, they recruited people who were already angry over something and asked to message someone via messenger to help them “process”. One group were asked to “recount” (a.k.a. vent) the situation that made them angry while another group was asked to “reconstrue” the situation. They found that those who “recounted” their situation just exacerbated their negative feelings. In short, “venting” does not really make us feel better.

So what is “venting”? In the study, it could be seen in the way you “recount” the situation that made you angry. These questions are:

  1. Could you tell me about what happened – what happened and what did you feel – from start to finish?
  2. What went through your mind during the exact moment?
  3. What stuck out the most at that moment?
  4. What did (he/she/they) say and do?
  5. How did this make you feel at that moment?

The “venting” questions focus on the “what” which seems to get us stuck and most likely is the reason why it does not improve how we feel. However,  in the same study, “reconstruing” (engaging in self-reflection)  meant being asked the following questions:

  1. Looking at the situation, could you tell me why this event was stressful to you?
  2. Why do you think you reacted to (the event/the person) that way?
  3. Why do you think (the other person in your experience) react that way?
  4. Have you learned anything from this experience, and if so, would you mind sharing it with me?
  5. In the grand scheme of things, if you look at the “big picture,” does that help you make sense of this experience? Why or why not?

The “reconstruing” questions target the “why” of your anger which scatters the net and draws a bigger perspective for you to make sense of your own anger. The “why” is like the key that unlocks that door where you realize you “feel” angry instead of just “being” angry.

Realizing that it is “you” feeling the anger situates you as a main actor in the situation and that you can have control over how you respond to the situation. “Feelings” also come and go so you know your angry “feeling” will pass.

A while back, I saw a video of a kindergarten class who are being taught “mindfulness” meditation as part of their learning. In one instance, when one girl was feeling angry, she, on her own, walked out of the situation and was caught saying to herself saying something like: “This is just my amygdala being hyperactive. I have to calm myself and think about this some more.” Another little boy who was being bullied, also volunteered to go to another room and breathed in and out a few times and when asked as to how he feels, also reflected on what he learned about his own brain when angry. Those are very young children.

Contrast that with grown men and women in positions of power lashing out incoherently in private or in public when angry or frustrated. Now, no one can spin those stories to say that we humans need to vent to feel better and tag “science” to support their claims. – Rappler.com