Anger is an issue we all wish we could learn to deal with — in ourselves and in others. The destructive reactions we come up with when in anger, we often come to regret later. We must control the anger when it’s easy before it gets out of hand. Is there an easy way to that?
Sometimes you realize you did wrong in the heat of the moment, which makes you go angry at yourself all over again. Think: That’s memory of anger making you angry.
Do You Punch A Bag To Control Anger?
Does venting off your anger douse your flame? If you blow off your steam, would it make you calmer? Can you bring your anger under control by carrying out an aggressive action?
Did anyone ever suggest that you pedal the hell out of your exercise bike to let yourself cool off? Or scream like a primate to release your hidden anger? Or box the stuffing out of a punching bag to loosen up?
Psychologists call this the catharsis message — that carrying out aggressive actions will reduce anger. But it may actually be quite wrong. As psychologists point out, ventilating your anger is of no value. In fact, it can have an opposite effect.
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and social psychology, has an extensive research on aggression for three decades. According to Google Scholar, his articles have got cited over 25,000 times. In a 1999 study, Brad Bushman, along with Angela Stack and Roy Baumeister, found that people who followed the catharsis message and then hit the punching bag became more aggressive afterward.
And in 2002, another study found that when angry people hit a punching bag while thinking about the person who had angered them, they got angrier. By the way, his study was also by the same anger researcher Brad Bushman.
Carol Tavris, another social psychologist, says, “People who are most prone to give vent to their rage get angrier, not less angry.” She cites a study in her book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion among laid-off engineers in San Diego. It showed that the men who ventilated their anger actually became more hostile toward the company or their supervisors than those who criticized themselves.
Can You Row Away Your Angry Feelings?
A few months back, this year, 2016, Fabian Pels and Jens Kleinert of German Sport University, Cologne, gathered 33 men and 27 women from local universities. These were students of psychology or social science. Of these, 58 students played a sport with regularity, as jogging, basketball and gymnastics.
The psychologists said they were to take part in a study “to examine whether self-perception differs between physical activities primarily requiring fine motor skills and those primarily requiring endurance”. That’s expert-speak for “We want to find out how you guys see the difference between exercises that need fine skills and those that demand stamina.”
But actually, it was an aggression study.
Half of the chosen sixty were to row on an ergometer — a rowing machine. The researchers divided them into three groups — the first to row it out on their own (individual), the second to perform it with others as team (cooperative), and the third to do it with others as contestants (competitive).
The other thirty had to do combat exercises. They also got clubbed into three groups. The individual combat exercisers punched a boxing bag. The competitive combat players got this instruction: Strike your opponent with a bataka bat (a padded foam bat), and your opponent could hit you back with theirs. In the cooperative combat condition, they had to hit a corded ball in a way that it passed to the other person over a rail. The other person would then pass the ball back.
Overall, there were six random groups and with six different activities to follow.
Before the start of the study, each of the participants received a pencil-and-paper test to find out their aggression score. Then their ‘umpires’ asked them to carry out some table tennis tasks. While they were at it, the umpires gave them a load of negative and unfair criticism to increase their anger levels.
Afterwards, the researchers checked their anger levels in another pencil-and-paper test. Finally, they were to do the rowing or combat exercises. And, of course, they went through the test again.
But, wait, this wasn’t over. The researchers repeated the whole cycle thrice. (Talk of psychological studies.)
The researchers at the beginning had assumed that their study will prove that:
- anger reduced when the exercise had movements unlike aggressive motions, and
- people working out together got less angry.
But they were wrong on both of these assumptions.
In the end, when the results came after analyzing all that data, it was a surprise. It was not that the persons who worked together as team became calmer. And it was not that the ones who played combat sports became angrier.
It was this: The individual rowers had reduced their anger the most.
Does The Best Fighter Ever Get Angry?
One thing was clear to the researchers. That rowing away on a machine on your own to bring the anger under control wasn’t a strategy that was foolproof. It wasn’t the real find. Then what was? Read on.
The researchers noticed the combat groups couldn’t be made as much angry by harsh criticism as the rowing groups. Said in a simple way, the combat groups were more chilled out even after their umpires rubbed them the wrong way. Plus, these combat guys did not pick up more anger while doing their bat-hitting or boxing rounds.
Remember the Lao Tzu quote: “The best fighter is never angry.”
All exercisers had reduced their anger, which Pels and Kleinert thought was due to overall muscle relaxation. Even this wasn’t the real find of the study.
So, what was the surprise find?
It was this, as the researchers wrote in their article in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, “Aggression reduction is less a matter of movement type or social constellation than a matter of need satisfaction and personal fulfillment. In other words, sport and exercise are able to reduce aggression, particularly in cases where participants experience movements or tasks as satisfying and enjoyable.”
In plain-speak: Exercise can cut your anger down, but only when you find it enjoyable.
An Anger Misquote. Buddha never said this: “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else — you are the one who gets burned.” It is a popular misquote. You may find it quite interesting to know that even though being credited to have said it, there is no written record that Buddha said it in so many words.
Hunting for it, you find that Joan Borysenko had written something similar in her 1987 book Minding the Body, Mending the Mind that somehow got changed into that misquote. Borysenko’s original words were: “The Buddha compared holding onto anger to grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else. You, of course, are the one who gets burned.”
Coming back, what Pels and Kleinert’s research indicates is that if you want to bring your anger down, and stop holding onto the hot coal, engage yourself in an exercise that you enjoy doing.
That is the surprisingly easy way to control your anger.
Post-Script: We’re happy to share with our readers that Dr Fabian Pels has endorsed this post on behalf of his research team. When we asked of his opinion, he emailed us to say: “We were pleased to read your blog post. From our point of view, we can clearly state that you send the right message.” Thank you, Dr Fabian Pels.
In Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion, Carol Tavris expertly examines every facet of that fascinating emotion — from genetics to stress to the rage for justice. San Francisco Chronicle calls this a “landmark book.”
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