The Health of Venting Anger

Photo © 2007 Amancay Maahs CC 2.0 BY NC ND

Back when I was but a teenager, working at the local Shaw’s Supermarket, I was promoted from bagging groceries, to ringing them up behind the cash register, to working behind the front desk. Shortly after this last promotion, I happened to have an argument with another of the employees who worked back there. I don’t remember what the fight was about, only that she yelled at me and made me feel like crap. Later on, she told me she wasn’t mad at me, but she believed it was better to let anger out rather than holding it in and letting it fester.

Uh huh.

At the time, I was way too young and naïve to know what to think about that.

More recently, I’ve wondered (and I’m probably not the only one): why do people write angry emails in response to blog posts? I mean, it doesn’t really accomplish anything. There will always be people online who say things you don’t agree with. And you can’t fix them all. So why would you want to go on record as an intolerable egomaniac? And in print, nonetheless! Then I wondered, maybe they do it for the same reason she yelled at me behind Shaw’s front desk: just to vent.

But I’m not sure that’s the best or healthiest approach.

A Community Ruptures

I mentioned Monday that there has been a drama unfolding at the church I’ve been a member of for the past umpteen years. Short version of the story: The pastor is leaving. No scandal or anything like that, but his departure is not totally by choice, either. As is always the case in these instances, some of the congregation take his side unconditionally, others see his resignation as a necessary step to the future, and there are those who just want to forget that there ever was a past or a future.

A church fulfills two primary human needs for its people: (1) spiritual growth and fulfillment and (2) a sense of community. And whenever a community ruptures like this, a part of each person is going to rip away like an open sore. Compound that with the fact that it’s over the pastor, who ultimately inspires spiritual growth and fulfillment, and this is how atheists are made. Needless to say, there are some bad feelings floating around the congregation. And there has been a fair amount of venting, like transitory geysers littering the landscape, spewing out boiling water and hot gas at odd moments as you pass by. Perfectly understandable. It’s bound to happen, and friends have to feel free to share their feelings with one another.

Even so, it’s caused me to reflect again on the health, or unhealthiness, of venting angry feelings.

Is Venting Healthy?

Another blogger originally inspired this blog post, by venting her angry feelings. It’s a topic that seems to come up repeatedly. But is venting healthy?

Venting that anger sometimes feels good, in the short term. But afterward, it usually doesn’t help solve the problem. In fact, it can create problems of its own, because an angry man stirs up dissension (as Solomon put it in Proverbs 29:22). What’s more, venting has a tragic downside. When you vent your anger, you help program that anger reaction into your brain, making it more likely that you will end up with even more anger, which will then fester, possibly sending you down the spiral of rage and bitterness. And that’s no fun.

But bottling up your anger also doesn’t really help, either, because it doesn’t deal with the cause of it. I’m not sure I agree with the aphorism that depression is “anger turned inwards.” But I do know that if you’re angry, that means that something’s wrong in your life–something that could possibly also cause depression.

Anger is an instinctive, primal reaction to a perceived threat. Your body produces stress hormones like adrenaline, which surge through your body, increasing your heartbeat, blood pressure, and breathing. Your muscles increase their strength and become primed for a workout. Your body puts less important functions on the back burner, like digestion and reproduction. And your thought processes become more focused and simpler–because simpler is faster. When you’re dealing with an imminent physical threat, you can’t stop and think out your options. If you survive, then you can stop and analyze. But for now, speed is most important.

Unfortunately, simpler also means more primitive. And for most of the problems that make us angry, we really do need to give it serious, rational thought. And it’s impossible to do that while you’re angry.

Never Chop Down a Tree in Winter

The answer is not to vent, but to calm down. Do 7/11 breathing. Or work out. Or even just stretch. Cut down on stimulation like TV, and read a book instead, preferably something light and stupid that makes you laugh. (Janet Evanovich, anyone?) After calming down, it’s much easier to analyze the situation that is causing the anger, and decide what the best thing is for you to do.

When I was younger, I’d work out my anger by going for a brisk hike, preferably along challenging terrain. As it turns out, that was probably the healthiest way I could have dealt with angry feelings. The exercise helps use those stress hormones for physical fitness, rather than emotional agony. People who exercise also tend to be less stressed out and more able to relax. What I remember is that it was always easier to think, even about something that hurt me or angered me deeply, after climbing Great Blue Hill.

Later in my life, I got away from the practice. And fell into depression. Maybe a coincidence, maybe not completely.

Over the past year, however, I’ve been most at peace overall, even with this craziness at church. Why? Because I now know not to get upset, at least not yet.

The story goes: One winter, a farmer ran out of firewood. In the bitter cold, he found a dead tree on his property, snapped a couple of twigs, made sure it was dead. Then he felled it, chopped it up, hauled it home for firewood. The following spring, he came upon the stump of the tree. New shoots and leaves were sprouting from it. The tree had merely been sleeping; its taproot still lived. The farmer learned a profound lesson: “Don’t chop down a dead tree during winter.”

Never make a major decision during a bad, emotional stretch. Wait until you can calm your desires and anxieties and knee-jerk reactions, until you can think things through properly.

That’s why they say you should let that angry email sit for a day. Then reread it. Then delete it instead of sending it.

But I’m not angry, just worried. Because I now know where I stand, what I need from my church, and I can ask whether I can continue to get it here. If not, at least I know what to look for. I can determine whether or not I fit in anymore. If not, at least I know who I am. And I also know where I stand, what my values are, and why.

I haven’t quite decided what I will do yet. But at least I know the parameters. The rest, I hope, will be straightforward, though probably not easy.