Give me a break

Learning to express our emotions and anger, rather than keeping a lid on them, is essential to our wellbeing. But how exactly do you let it all out? By Liz Hollis

Bottling up our rage, rather than expressing it in a healthy way, can trap feelings deep inside where they can fester and turn in on themselves. Continually staying quiet while seething inside can lead to chronic stress, depression, low self-esteem and even physical illness such as cardiovascular disease.

But in a culture where we are brought up to keep a lid on our emotions, what’s the best way to handle the surge of rage that we all experience at times? Should we count to 10, remove ourselves and take a few deep breaths, or is it healthier to let it all out by shouting, screaming or even smashing stuff?

Olivia, 35, who admits she finds it hard to express anger, simply kept her rage to herself when her partner failed to help yet again. ‘Visitors were due, but the lounge was chaotic as usual with discarded coffee cups, briefcase and shoes. I was fuming but couldn’t face a confrontation, so I resentfully tidied it myself.’

Psychologist Dr Sandi Mann, who researches anger at the University of Central Lancashire, says hiding emotions in this way can be harmful. Anger, like all emotions, is there for a specific purpose. In Olivia’s case, it was signalling that she needed to feel more supported by her partner.

‘It is a potentially healthy emotion that motivates us to change and communicates to others that something isn’t right,’ she says. ‘The anger needs to be acknowledged and channelled constructively.’

Indeed, keeping a traditional stiff upper lip may even damage your career and lower your satisfaction in life, according to research from the Harvard Study of Adult Development. If you want to feel fulfilled in work and relationships, you need to get angry.

The Harvard project has tracked the lives of more than 800 men and women for 44 years. Those who let anger out were more likely to be happy in their career, and enjoy close physical and emotional intimacy. However, those who suppressed their frustrations were more likely to admit to having disappointing work and personal lives.

Dr Simone Fox, a chartered clinical psychologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that while anger must be expressed and dealt with, unbridled aggression, whether physical or verbal, can be destructive and antisocial.

But smashing things can seem appealing when your blood starts to boil. In the US, entrepreneur Sarah Lavely insists she has come up with the perfect way to channel the urge to smash. She recently set up the Smash Shack in San Diego where people pay an average of $30 (£19) a head for wanton but controlled destruction. It’s proving popular and she’s planning to expand her business into the UK.

Lavely’s customers supply the anger, and she supplies goggles, a safety suit and a padded room where they can smash crockery and glasses, or bring their own items to destroy — one woman brought in a framed photo of her and her ex-husband.

Customers are encouraged to play loud music and write messages, such as, ‘Goodbye to that phase of my life, now for a new start’, on the crockery. There are group discounts and the Smash Shack is particularly popular with divorce parties.

It all began when Lavely set up some crockery to smash in her driveway as self-administered therapy for her own acrimonious divorce. ‘Modern life is repressive, but keeping a stiff upper lip is bad for you,’ she says. ‘We need to express anger rather than shoving it down. Sometimes you just need to break something.

‘Customers leave happy, invigorated, sometimes even elated, but definitely transformed and free from whatever was troubling them. This is a healthy way to let anger out and it’s not hurting anybody.’ Crockery comes from charity shops and is recycled into mosaics by artists.

In Tokyo, a new crockery-smashing shop called The Venting Place allows stressed-out workers and shoppers to let rip. They pay to don goggles and smash dishes and plates safely and legally against concrete slabs in a padded area.

Other home-spun anger techniques that let it out but don’t hurt anybody in the process include punching a cushion or driving to an isolated spot, winding up the windows of your car and screaming.

Lavely is convinced this new trend for controlled venting is good for you, but experimental studies that measure how people feel after physically relieving their anger show that it may make you feel even angrier immediately afterwards.

A study by Professor Brad Bushman at the University of Michigan showed that participants who hit a punch bag after being provoked in a laboratory situation were even more aggressive and angry afterwards than a control group, who stayed calm.

However, the long-term Harvard study, which monitored participants for decades, does seem to suggest that, even if it escalates your anger for a while, it is ultimately better
out than in.

Mann says punching your pillow in private or smashing crockery should be seen as a temporary anger-interruption technique that prevents you from doing something more dangerous that might harm you or somebody else. It also stops you bottling it all up where it will fester. ‘Venting should be viewed as a short-term, time-buying solution that might be useful for some people,’ she says.

‘It can disrupt the anger mechanism and make sure you ultimately deal with it appropriately rather than lashing out and hurting someone — or getting the sack by shouting at your boss. You then have time to work out what your anger is telling you about what needs changing.’

In the absence of a punch bag in the office or a local Smash Shack, she suggests there are probably better anger-interrupting techniques that give you time to channel the emotions constructively.

Try exercise — running will release adrenalin and aggression and calm you down, allowing you time to think up change-making strategies. Or when your blood starts to boil, try picturing funny images in your head — humour and anger are incompatible, but laughing still gets rid of pent-up emotions.

Alternatively, take yourself off to a quiet place for some progressive muscle relaxation — tensing then releasing each muscle in turn. Not forgetting that, although you are calming yourself down in the short term, you will still need to address what it is that is making you angry.

Once you’ve dealt with the instant blood boil, it’s time to get constructive with channelling your anger and find ways that will really let it out for good.

‘Don’t ignore anger,’ says Fox. ‘Don’t suppress it. Don’t hurt anybody or yourself. Acknowledge and then act on the valuable message your anger is giving you about what needs changing in your life. Delve to the root of your anger and really work out exactly what triggers it and what you need to do about it.’

When you work out what needs changing, you can then channel your anger into more useful problem-solving assertiveness. Confront people constructively rather than keeping quiet and letting it all build up until you hurl insults, explode, or send harsh emails or texts — always a bad idea because they linger in the cold light of day when your anger has subsided.

Use ‘I’ statements to explain how you feel and why you are angry. Then explain what you want to happen. Confront the problem not the person and come to a joint solution.
For example, if your anger is unleashed by your children misbehaving, set some consequences or rewards for them for doing what you ask rather than yelling at them. Assertiveness and setting clear goals will feel much better in the long term.

We all feel anger, but if we can learn how to channel and express it while avoiding the self-destructive consequences of unbridled fury or bottling it up, it will pay dividends for our emotional and physical wellbeing. ‘Help anger to become a useful, constructive emotion for you, not a destructive and harmful one,’ says Mann.

Photograph: Hemera Technologies