In the last post, I pointed out the importance of clarifying and expressing your feelings of distress. Understanding how you feel about a distressing situation and expressing it in a safe context can make you feel better and stay healthier.
For years many in the mental health field have encouraged people to blow off steam, let out their anger, and get things off their chest. It was a model that implied that, when we are upset, we are like a boiler that is overheated, and that will blow up if it does not release some of the pressure. But humans are much more complex than boilers.
This way of handling distress, which is called “venting”, is not likely to make you feel better or become healthier.
Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson gave a nice, concise summary of the effects of venting:
“…when people vent they often feel worse, pump up their blood pressure, and make themselves even angrier. Venting is especially likely to backfire if a person commits an aggressive act against another person directly…”.
There are commonly social ramifications of venting. Venting or dumping strong negative feelings on other people is likely to lead to reactions on their part that will create more stress. People have a way of making a person who is venting and dumping on them pay a price for doing so. And so the original stress gets amplified instead of being brought under control.
More careful therapists were likely to have people “get their anger out” by having them do things like yelling and screaming at pillows or beating on them with bats wrapped in foam rubber. This avoids antagonizing others and thereby amplifying stress.
However, if you don’t have a deep inner connection to your words and actions, these methods are not likely to resolve the issues. This pounding and yelling is probably, at best, a way to get a bit of exercise.
Fully articulating feelings tends to produce healthy outcomes, e.g. fewer physical symptoms, fewer visits to health care facilities, and improved immunity. This articulating, unlike venting, involves a serious look at what has you upset and how you feel about it. You should come away from the experience with a sense of greater self-understanding and of relief.
The following are some clues that you are engaging in unproductive venting:
- When you vent, you do not feel a sense of progressing toward recovery; you can go over and over the problem without moving forward at all.
- Your inner tension is likely to improve little if at all, and often will rise.
- You don’t get a feeling of deepening your understanding of yourself and why you are reacting as you are.
- You don’t get a glimmer of how you might proceed to improve the situation or live well in spite of it.
- Commonly the focus is on others, on how awful and wicked they are.