By Peter M. Vishton, PhD, William & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily
Research has found that catharsis—screaming or punching a pillow—is not the most effective method for addressing anger. How then should we deal with anger when it arises? And is anger always to be avoided?
One possibility for handling anger is to repress it, but this is problematic. You often end up taking out the anger on situations that are not related to the original problem. Plus, sometimes anger can be positive, by leading to a change in behavior or by pursuing a resolution to a problem that led to the anger.
An alternative to repression is suppression of anger. You would be resisting the urge to scream, yell, and/or fully express your anger.
In that sense, it’s similar to repression. If you’re suppressing the anger, though, you should still express it without any overt, aggressive aspects of demonstrating anger physically.
“Maybe you do something that makes me really angry,” Professor Vishton said. “Say you report me to the Humane Society because you’ve heard that I yell at my dog a lot over a little sock-chewing incident. The SPCA officials show up at my door and threaten to take away my dog. I would be angry at you. Really angry, actually. I love living with my dog.”
He might feel like yelling to express this anger, but he knows, based on four decades of research on catharsis, that yelling will make him more, not less angry. Instead, he will convey the same information about being angry in the most monotone, boring voice possible:
“I think it’s really presumptuous of you to have called the humane society and reported me. I love my dog. I’ve never hurt him. I never would. I might have yelled a little too much, but I only do that rarely. How could you even know what kind of life my dog has? You’ve never even met us.”
Suppression and Other Methods
In this example, you are suppressing the emotional parts of your anger, which would inspire an aggressive response on the part of the other person, while neutrally explaining why the person’s actions were upsetting. By keeping the discussion calm, you can both use your full complement of frontal lobe brain tissue to resolve the conflict.
Suppressing anger isn’t about pushing away the anger, but about redirecting the anger response away from the accompanying activities—like shouting and cursing—that are often most destructive.
What if suppression doesn’t work? Perhaps you have a calm discussion that does not reach a resolution.
At this point, moving to another location and also getting some physical activity can help. It is helpful if both parties can get away from the disagreement for a while without feeling the intense anger. Then, when they revisit the disagreement, perhaps a creative solution would be found.
Evolutionary biologists describe the brain systems that mediate our angry emotions and angry behaviors as ancient neural programming and very quick to arise. As our ancestors competed with others for limited resources, being able to get angry quickly—to generate a strong, aggressive response—was a competitive advantage associated with survival. Thinking calmly, conversely, is a slower response and action.
Keeping this in mind, Professor Vishton has a recommendation strongly supported by brain research. If you feel a surge of anger and want to get it under control, count to 10, slowly, breathing steadily. Just waiting for the slower, cortical systems to catch up with the faster, subcortical systems that mediate anger can greatly reduce irrational anger behaviors.
Positive Benefits of Anger
That said, you do not want to completely turn off your ability to get angry. Some anger can be positive. Professor Vishton sees at least two different upsides.
If you become aware of people who are victims of poverty or injustice, you might feel two different types of responses. One response is empathy for the victims of the suffering.
The other response is anger toward the people responsible for the problems. When people who get involved in charitable organizations are surveyed, they report that anger about the conditions of a situation is a motivating factor.
Anger and Motivation
A second positive is the way that anger can motivate our desires, like a source of energy. In one study, participants were shown a series of objects on a computer screen.
Just before an object was presented, a face was very briefly flashed on the screen. The face had either a neutral, fearful, happy, or angry expression.
After viewing this whole sequence of images, participants indicated how much they wanted the objects depicted. In one condition, participants would squeeze a handle as hard as they could in a game in which they were told that the harder they squeezed, the more likely they would be to win the object as a prize.
Participants expressed a stronger desire—and squeezed the handle significantly harder—for objects associated with the angry emotion than for the others. It seems that if we pair something with a mild feeling of anger, it becomes more attractive.
Extreme anger can create many problems, but mild anger can be an emotion of tremendous importance. The key, then, is not to eliminate your anger.
There is good evidence that these strategies can help convert anger into positive, productive action. Some of the greatest things humans have ever accomplished began when someone becoming enraged that the world is as it is, rather than as it could be.
This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.