After spending all afternoon at a table in Olin listening to your rumbling stomach and fantasizing about dinner, you walk into your apartment and make a beeline for the fridge. You open the door and reach for the leftovers — your mom’s eggplant parmesan — that you brought back up to school with you. You push aside the strawberry yogurts, the three-month-old cans of Keystone and some half-empty bottles of salad dressing, but you can’t find the Tupperware. Then, as you turn around, something in the garbage can catches your eye: a familiar container with tomato sauce remnants around the edges. Before you can even process what has happened, you feel your face flush and your muscles clench. It doesn’t take someone with two psych degrees to diagnose you: You are furious.
Anger is an instinctual drive and a completely natural emotion. We can all relate not only to the feeling, but to the physiological state that accompanies anger. Dozens of expressions — “blood boiling” and “smoke coming out of your ears” — refer to the physical feeling of being mad. Arousal of the nervous system, heart rate acceleration and a rise in blood pressure all contribute to that familiar “about to explode” sensation. When you get mad, your body gears-up for a physical fight and causes you to focus your attention on the target of your anger, contributing to the consuming nature of the emotion. The release of catecholamines causes a burst of energy, and hormones including adrenalin contribute to a more enduring state of arousal. Anger is a unique emotion in that it is always directed at a target, even if the target is oneself. Regardless, the feeling is nearly impossible to ignore.
We have all been told by our moms to, “Take a few deep breaths,” when we get angry. You may have left these words of wisdom behind with your old curfew and rules about eating your vegetables, but give your mom some credit — this actually solid advice. By taking deep breaths, your body is able to physiologically calm down and relax from an anger-induced state of arousal. Similarly, when someone tells you to “get a grip,” the advice is more helpful than it sounds. Your amygdala, which plays a primary role in processing emotion, responds very quickly in order to prepare your body to react immediately to threats. In fact, your amygdala can react before your prefrontal cortex (which assists in judgment formation) has time to catch-up and keep your emotions in check. This can result in your emotions running free without your better judgment participating in any type of decision making. (Have you ever punched a wall then looked down at your throbbing hand and and then realized that was stupid?) Getting a grip refers to letting your prefrontal cortex catch up and gain control so that your emotions aren’t dominating your behavior. If you react immediately when you get mad, you lose the benefit of your good judgment while you are already aroused and “ready to fight” physiologically.
While you know that punching a wall isn’t the answer, in the heat of the moment you have an overwhelming desire to take your anger out — and you think, “Hey, better to hit a wall than my ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend” (especially since he’s on the hockey team). Psychologists use the term catharsis to refer to the idea of “getting it out.” Freud was among the first to document the concept of needing emotional release in order to reduce negative emotions. If you think that letting out your anger is an effective way to start feeling better, you’re not alone: Scientific American Mind reported that approximately 66 percent of undergrads agree that expressing built up anger is a good way to reduce aggression. This belief, called the catharsis hypothesis, does still have some supporters (including a man named Arthur Janov who runs “primal scream therapy” encouraging adults to scream at the top of their lungs to release anger). However, many contemporary studies have endorsed the idea that “letting it out” actually gets your anger “out.”
Actually, punching a punching bag when you’re mad has two problematic outcomes. First, as cognitive scientist Art Markman explains, it causes you to associate getting mad with acting aggressively. Second, it likely enhances your frustration and aggression. Brad Bushman, Roy Baumeister and Angela Stack tested out this idea by inducing anger in the participants of their study and then letting some punch a punching bag for two minutes while others just sat in a waiting room. After, subjects played a game in which different “aggressive options” were presented. Supporters of the catharsis hypothesis would believe that those who punched the punching bag had gotten their anger out and would subsequently be less aggressive against opponents, but the researchers found that the reverse was true. Subjects who punched the punching bag were in fact more aggressive than those who had no option for physically “releasing” their anger. Other studies looking at less physically violent forms of catharsis, including hammering nails and playing video games, have also refuted the idea that letting anger out in aggressive ways reduces aggression.
In the same vein, by venting and allowing angry emotions to surface, you are reliving many of the same feelings and situations that made you mad in the first place. Psychologists suggest that what actually makes many people feel better during “venting” is processing the situation in order to identify the source of the anger and possible solutions.
Next time you’re tempted to punch your pillow or scream at your best friend, take a few deep breaths, give yourself a few minutes to process why you’re angry and recognize that blowing up isn’t likely to make you feel better. So, if you’re going to take any overused advice about anger to heart, do yourself a favor and, “Get a grip.” RLD