Health & Wellbeing

Angry? Don't go for a run, it'll just make things worse

Angry? Don't go for a run, it'll just make things worse
Running to 'blow off steam' when you're angry is counter-productive, according to new research
Running to 'blow off steam' when you're angry is counter-productive, according to new research
View 1 Image
Running to 'blow off steam' when you're angry is counter-productive, according to new research
Running to 'blow off steam' when you're angry is counter-productive, according to new research

Engaging in activities that are designed to blow off steam when you’re angry – like jogging or hitting a punching bag – probably isn’t going to be effective at reducing your anger, researchers have found. It’s better, they say, to try activities that decrease your physical arousal.

Anger is an unpleasant emotion that most people want to be rid of. The reality is that many of us are angrier these days for a whole raft of reasons. A Gallup poll found that Americans were more angry in 2018 than they had been in previous years, and the COVID pandemic wasn’t even a thing then!

Generally speaking, there are two ways to manage anger: engaging in activities that increase physical arousal – commonly known as blowing off steam – and engaging in arousal-decreasing activities. Researchers from Ohio State University (OSU) analyzed 154 studies with 10,189 participants to determine the most effective way to reduce anger.

“I think it’s really important to bust the myth that if you’re angry, you should blow off steam – get it off your chest,” said Brad Bushman, professor of communication at OSU and the study’s co-lead and co-corresponding author. “Venting might sound like a good idea, but there’s not a shred of scientific evidence to support catharsis theory.”

In psychoanalytic theory, ‘catharsis’ is the release of pent-up emotions like anger, frustration, or sadness through verbal and physical expressions. It comes from the Greek word for ‘purification’ or ‘cleansing’ and has been around since Aristotle’s time, although it was favored by Sigmund Freud as a therapeutic technique used to release the paralyzing effects associated with negative, traumatic memories.

The studies analyzed included participants of different genders, ages, races and cultures. Study selection and analysis were guided by the Schachter-Singer two-factor theory, which states that emotions, including anger, comprise two key factors: physiological arousal and a cognitive label. That is, the experience of emotion first involves a physiological response to a stimulus, which the mind then identifies or labels.

Some previous meta-analyses have focused on using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to change a person’s mental meaning. However, in the current study, the researchers considered that focusing instead on arousal would fill a gap in understanding how to resolve anger effectively. The researchers were partly inspired by the rise in popularity of ‘rage rooms,’ in which people smash things like glass, plates and electronics to work through angry feelings.

“I wanted to debunk the whole theory of expressing anger as a way of coping with it,” said Sophie Kjærvik, the other study author. “We wanted to show that reducing arousal, and actually the physiological aspect of it, is really important.”

So, the researchers’ analysis was focused on arousal-increasing activities (e.g. hitting a punching bag, jogging, cycling, swimming) and arousal-decreasing activities (e.g. deep breathing, mindfulness, meditation, yoga). They found that arousal-decreasing activities were effective at reducing anger in lab settings and in the field, using digital platforms or in-person instruction, in group and one-on-one settings across multiple populations: college students and non-students, people with and without a criminal history, and people with and without intellectual disabilities.

“It was really interesting to see that progressive muscle relaxation and just relaxation in general might be as effective as approaches such as mindfulness and meditation,” Kjærvik said. “And yoga, which can be more arousing than meditation and mindfulness, is still a way of calming and focusing on your breath that has the [sic] similar effect in reducing anger. Obviously, in today’s society, we’re all dealing with a lot of stress, and we need ways of coping with that, too. Showing that the same strategies that work for stress actually also work for anger is beneficial.”

Activities that increased arousal were generally ineffective in reducing anger, producing a complex range of outcomes. Jogging, in particular, was the most likely to increase anger, while physical education classes and playing ball sports had an arousal-decreasing effect. The researchers suggested this was because the latter introduced an element of play that may counter negative emotions.

“Certain physical activities that increase arousal may be good for your heart, but they’re definitely not the best way to reduce anger,” Bushman said. “It’s really a battle because angry people want to vent, but our research shows that any good feeling we get from venting actually reinforces aggression.”

The researchers point out that many arousal-reducing methods of reducing anger are free or inexpensive and easy to access.

“You don’t need to necessarily book an appointment with a cognitive behavioral therapist to deal with anger,” said Kjærvik. “You can download an app for free on your phone, or you can find a YouTube video if you need guidance.”

The study was published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.

Source: Ohio State University

Too often I'm surprised by the lack of common-sense of some researchers. They were surprised that jogging was the most likely to increase anger. I would assume that one need to have his mind busy in a way or another in order and think about something else and "move" the angriness aside. While jogging you're on autopilot, therefore ones mind continues to "boil in it's own sause", on the other side while paying a more involved game or where strategies are necessary would keep ones mind focused on the game and away from the anger.
I've always thought going for a run was a great way to clear my head, but it's intriguing to see the science behind why it might not be the best approach. Definitely going to try some of those arousal-decreasing activities mentioned here.
Doesn’t it matter not only what you do, but how? A half an hour on a punchbag isn’t the same as five minutes. The experience, tempo, duration of brakes, what punches and other moves you add to the mix may have an influence too. I’ve worked my hands on it for quite a few years and it definitely made me substantially calmer afterwards. The devil is in the details and there are many of them in this case.