When you get angry, you feel the need to vent. It feels natural and cathartic. But that doesn't mean the act is actually healthy.
In fact, multiple studies conducted by Dr. Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at The Ohio State University, reveal that venting is not beneficial, reports Elizabeth Bernstein in the Wall Street Journal.
In one study, students who vented later chose the adjectives "mean," "hostile," and "irritated" to describe their mood. Other students subjected to the same source of anger--but who did nothing to vent--later reported feeling "calm," "happy," and "relaxed." The source of anger in each case was a conflict (orchestrated by Bushman's research team) with someone who vehemently disagreed with the student's views on abortion.
Leaving aside the fact that venting does not reduce your anger, the act of venting via email or social media also comes with risks. You can hit "send" too soon and upset a friend or boss. You can create a written document of your feelings which will potentially come back to embarrass you. New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady recently learned this the hard way, when his private email about another quarterback, Peyton Manning, became public as part of the ongoing investigation about the alleged deflation of footballs.
What's more, you can come off as petty. In the Journal, Bernstein described how last Christmas, stuck at a JetBlue terminal waiting for a delayed flight, she became annoyed at how the airline was playing holiday music by Alvin and the Chipmunks. She tweeted JetBlue to complain. After seven total tweets, she finally "felt ridiculous for complaining publicly about small rodents singing."
All of which begs the question: What can you do, in lieu of venting? Here's a list of 11 actions, compiled from Bushman's suggestions and other sources.
1. Don't hit send.
The master of this method was Abraham Lincoln. As Dale Carnegie noted in his biography of the 16th president, "Lincoln the Unknown," Lincoln once drafted a stern rebuke of General George Meade, who'd disobeyed Lincoln's orders during the Civil War.
But Lincoln never sent the letter. Carnegie's speculation about why Lincoln never sent the letter is fascinating. His best guess is that Lincoln's thought process went like this:
"Maybe I ought not to be so hasty. It is easy enough for me to sit here in the quiet of the White House and order Meade to attack; but if I had been up at Gettysburg, and if I had seen as much blood as Meade has seen during the last week, and if my ears had been pierced with the screams and shrieks of the wounded and dying, maybe I wouldn't be so anxious to attack either. If I had Meade's timid temperament, perhaps I would have done just what he had done. Anyhow, it is water under the bridge now."
2. Count to 10--or if you're really angry, to 100--in your head.
Berman notes that another former president, Thomas Jefferson, used this practice to calm himself down.
3. Look at pictures of others being loved or cared for.
When you feel anxious, the only thing on your mind is whatever is stressing you out. But research published in Social, Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience found that "when people viewed pictures of others being loved or cared for, their brains' threat response became muted," writes Inc.com's Jill Krasny.
4. Breathe deeply.
This is another tip from Bushman. You may have heard it before. But that doesn't mean you don't need a reminder to keep breathing when the going gets tough. Entrepreneurs have found deep breathing, not to mention other meditative practices, helpful in staying calm amidst everyday stresses.
5. Listen to calming music.
You might be in the mood for metal or something that can match the pace of your racing mind. What you need is the opposite. It's no secret music can change your mood or boost your productivity. But as with the breathing, it's easy to forget these basics when you're stressed.
6. Turn off your phone or computer.
Berman points out that this can help you avoid the person who is making you angry. It will also prevent you from sending them a text or email you'll later regret. In addition, most people who take the step of unplugging for a short time--be it for Lent or just for dinnertime--say it calms them down.
7. Read a nonviolent book.
This will quiet your mind and put your focus on characters you've never met and settings you've (likely) never seen. Recent studies show reading just 30 minutes a week can make you happier and healthier. Not to mention, reading is a daily habit of the highly successful.
8. Work on a crossword puzzle.
Your mind will have an immediate challenge to tackle, something it can nibble on to stave off the lingering, stressful issues you're dealing with. (And the better you get at puzzles, the more adept you'll become at configuring your own schedule.)
9. Take a walk.
Ever wonder why you always see this tip on lists about how to relax? Because it checks most of the boxes. While walking, you are exercising, escaping your laptop, breathing deeply, perhaps even listening to calm music. You are also, in all likelihood, outside. And the sounds of nature--birds chirping, rain falling, bees buzzing--have a calming effect.
10. Observe the situation as an outsider.
In other words, try to interpret the stressful conflict as a disinterested party, hearing about it for the first time. Try not to think about whose side the outsider would take. Instead, think about whether the outsider would believe the situation is a big deal. This is one reason it pays to have friends you don't work with as an emotional support system.
11. Eat something healthy.
"People who are hungry are cranky," Bushman tells the Journal. While you're at it, stay hydrated. It will keep you calm, especially when you're traveling.