That the term “catharsis” dates back to ancient Greece suggests humans have been trying to manage their frustrations for a very long time. (Aristotle originally used the term in his work Poetics to describe an emotional release, or “purification”, felt by audience members watching tragic plays.)
Still, the Greeks have nothing on the modern-day employee: with six in ten workers in major global economies experiencing increased workplace stress – and that says nothing of traffic jams, online comment sections and the umpteen other modern annoyances we encounter on a daily basis.
It’s not surprising we occasionally have the need to let it all out. We may feel a sense of satisfaction after unloading our issues on friends, but studies have shown this strategy is ineffective over time. Happily, you can rid yourself of rage in many creative ways without blowing a gasket.
Vent on paper, not in pixels
The internet provides anonymity and unlimited word count, two qualities that, especially when combined, can facilitate rants. But a 2007 metastudy out of the University of Arkansas underscored that, while such outlets may seem like healthy anger management, “psychological research has shown virtually no support for the beneficial effects of venting.”
In fact, while gratifying in the short term, sounding off online might actually aggravate us more. After reviewing decades of evidence, the authors of the 2007 paper concluded that unleashing anger in quick-fix bursts “just teaches people how to behave more aggressively.” A 2013 study in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking revealed that users of online “rant sites” (exactly what they sound like) are both more likely to have a history of struggling with anger issues and to deal with their rage in inappropriate ways (like physical altercations).
A more measured off-line approach, on the other hand, may calm us down. Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine in 2008 showed that personal expression through writing letters has been associated with increased pain control and fewer depressive symptoms in chronic pain sufferers. Researchers believe the emotional disclosure in this act allows for more “meaning making”, or reasoned insight into the conditions that caused anger in the first place. Even if you don’t suffer from pain conditions, putting pen to paper when you’re feeling irked offers an alternative to the internet’s cycle of vent-frustration-vent-frustration.
Run away from your problems – literally
Physicians have rightly endorsed exercise as a useful tool for fighting depression. But is the practice as effective when it comes to tempering frustration? Yes. In 2010, researchers at the University of Georgia studied 15 undergraduate men who were identified as having particularly short fuses, showing them anger-inducing images (like war scenes) on two separate days. After viewing the pictures, the group was instructed to ride a stationary bike for about 30 minutes in one session; during the other, the group was told to sit in silence. When they exercised after the slide show, the men experienced less arousal in their brains’ anger centres than when they simply sat in silence.
Stress physiologist Nathaniel Thom, the study’s lead researcher, notes that exercise’s calming effects aren’t exclusive to angry young men – or those with psychological or behavioural issues. “Exercise helps mood in ‘normal’ people too,” he says.
Thom recommends aerobic exercise at a moderate to vigorous intensity (think jogging) but cautions that not all physical expressions of anger are created equal. “Smashing things isn’t really exercise,” he says of our occasional desire to break stuff when peeved. “If you punch a hole in your front door, that’s not exactly constructive.”
Go to your happy place
It can be hard to avoid outbursts in the heat of a frustrating moment, but a psychological technique called self-distancing may help cool you down. In a 2012 study conducted at the University of Michigan, 94 college students were asked to solve challenging anagrams while listening to classical music.
During the task, researchers were vocally critical of participants’ abilities to follow directions. Those who were instructed to adopt a self-distancing approach – the ability to reflect on yourself from an external perspective, what study lead Dominik Mischkowski describes as “fly on the wall” – displayed less aggression towards their critics than peers advised to “self-immerse”, or reflect on their feelings.
“In many situations, if somebody pisses you off, you can’t just tune out,” Mischkowski says. “Self-distancing is a way to step back without losing touch with the situation. You don’t get a physical distance, but you get mental distance.”
If you do need some physical space, though, consider a brisk walk. After all, the science backs it up.