“You know what I do when I’m mad? I hit a pillow. Just hit the pillow. See how you feel.” –Billy Crystal, as a psychiatrist, tells client Robert Deniro, in the movie Analyze This.
If Hollywood says it’s true, it must be, right? Actually, Hollywood isn’t the only proponent of hitting stuff when you get mad. The idea that pent-up anger can explode into aggressive rage has gained widespread acceptance in American culture.
The answer? Curb your anger by hitting something other than the person you’re mad at. After all, a right hook to a punching bag is better than one to your boss. It seems to make perfect sense.
Except for the tiny little problem that it doesn’t actually work.
Exacerbating the Problem
Brad Bushman, who studies catharsis and anger at Iowa State University, has found that “[e]xpressing your anger, even against inanimate objects, doesn’t make you less angry at all.
In laboratory experiments, whacking a punching bag or attacking a pillow actually seems to increase anger, not tame it. It’s been tested several times, and there’s virtually no scientific evidence to support catharsis.”
Derek agrees. Now 34, he used to handle his anger by screaming and breaking things. “When someone said something I didn’t like,” he recalls, “my tendency was to react and yell.”
But over the years, and after a number of failed relationships and job losses, he became aware that his actions did nothing to relieve his anger. Instead, they prolonged it. “I felt the heat and disruption of anger for a long time afterward,” he says.
Why Doesn’t It Work?
The logic seems reasonable, so why doesn’t it work? Steven Stosny, Ph.D., a therapist who treats people for anger and relationship problems, explains that “Participants are training their brains to associate anger with controlled aggression rather than compassion and reconciliation.
In other words, we create bad habits. We train our brains when we do something, anything, and it makes us feel good—we want to do it again…and more often. The rush of anger is addictive.
Allowing yourself to lash out as a means to control your anger is like drinking to control your urge to drink.
Then What Does Work?
“The aim is to inhibit or suppress your anger and convert it into more constructive behavior,” explains Charles Spielberger, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in the study of anger. “The danger is that if it isn’t allowed outward expression, your anger can turn inward—on yourself.
Anger turned inward may cause hypertension, high blood pressure, or depression. You can calm down inside. This means not just controlling your outward behavior, but also controlling your internal responses, taking steps to lower your heart rate, calm yourself down, and let the feelings subside.”
If you’re feeling angry, instead of expressing negative emotions in a dramatic way, try to act the way you wish you felt by finding a calm way to express your feelings—or take steps to distract yourself.
Derek agrees. “I realized that I had a choice in the way I reacted.” Now he takes deep breaths, focuses on his breathing, and thinks about why he is angry. “In the short term, it’s easier to lash out and hurt people,” he notes, “But a long-term solution—soothing my anger and looking into it deeply—makes more sense. It takes more effort, but it’s worthwhile. Anger is a destructive force. It eats you up inside,” he says.
- American Psychological Association’s Anger factsheet — Retrieved 7 April 2010
- The Aggression Research Program — Retrieved 7 April 2010
- Bushman, Brad J., (1999). Does Venting Anger Feed or Extinguish the Flame? Catharsis, Rumination, Distraction, Anger, and Aggressive Responding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28(6), 367-376.
- Pedersen, W. C., Bushman, B. J., Vasquez, E. A., & Miller, N. (2008). Kicking the (barking) dog effect: The moderating role of target attributes on triggered displaced aggression. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1382-1395.
Angie Boss is an award-winning health writer and author or co-author of several books, including Before Your Time: Living Well with Premature Menopause (Simon and Schuster, 2010). She received a Bachelor's of Arts degree in Sociology and Journalism from Virginia Wesleyan College and a Masters of Pastoral Counseling from Union Theological Seminary.