Current Affairs

Anger management

Why bottling up your bad temper may be better for you.

“You know what I do when I get angry, Paul?” says the shrink, played by Billy Crystal in the movie Analyse This.
“I hit the pillow. Just hit the pillow. See how you feel.”
His client, an insecure mobster played by Robert De Niro, promptly pulls out a gun and unloads a round of bullets into the pillow.
“There’s your fuckin’ pillow.”
“Feel better?”
“Yeah, I do,” says Paul, looking surprised.
This idea, that we can release our anger like an engine releases steam, probably goes back to pre-biblical times, but has stuck so fast that around the world clubs have been set up offering people the opportunity to do just that. Such as the Break Club in Buenos Aires, or the Furiousness Club in Budapest, where people come together “within a safe and controlled environment” to throw bottles at the wall and smash discarded computers.
“This is incredible,” said Natasha, interviewed by the BBC, and who’d come to the Break Club for catharsis after a hard day at the call centre. “We should all break more stuff. I really enjoyed breaking the keyboard.” According to the club’s manager, many clients are women, and some bring a photograph of their ex-partner “so they can destroy it”.
There is a perceived wisdom, especially in self-help circles, that it’s good to let things out. In the 70s, it was called the “catharsis hypothesis” and, drawing on a hydraulic metaphor, posited people as bottles – arguing that releasing one’s anger was like releasing a safety valve, a psychologically and physically cleansing thing to do.
You don’t have to look far on the internet, for instance, to find an alternative therapy website claiming “the more one suppresses toxic emotions [such as anger] throughout their life, the more susceptible they are to cancer manifesting within their body”. Which might give us all an excuse to unload toxic emotions on our nearest and dearest, but presumably there’d be a lot less cancer in the world if things were so simple.
While a few small studies have suggested there might be an association between repressed emotions and cancer, a paper published in the Clinical Psychological Review looked at all the research that had investigated such a link and concluded there wasn’t one. There is some evidence that stress may play a part in your quality of life once you get cancer, but there’s not yet evidence that this will make much difference to how long you live. Or that controlling your temper is going to make things worse.
We don’t get cancer because we suppress our emotions, but because we’re complex biological beings and sometimes abnormal cells start replicating, mostly for reasons scientists don’t yet understand.
“We should all break more stuff. I really enjoyed breaking the keyboard.”
And then there’s the other side of the coin, the idea that blowing your top can cause heart attack and stroke.
A review published in the European Heart Journal last year looked at whether outbursts of anger were a trigger of acute cardiovascular events, and concluded they were. Likewise, a study from researchers at the University of North Carolina, in which 13,000 patients rated their own tendency to get mad and then were followed up three years later, found those who said they often lose their cool were three times more likely to have heart attacks than those who didn’t.
Researchers in Canada, however, who took 785 randomly selected adults and followed them for a decade, suggested it’s not just about the anger, but how we express it. The men in the study who used their anger in a constructive way were less likely to develop heart disease, although there was no difference among women. But both men and women who used anger to justify their own behaviour, rather than reflect on it, had a higher risk.
Yet many other studies have found no link between anger and heart disease, or between temper and high blood pressure. Which isn’t surprising; heart disease and anger can manifest in so many ways, and involve so many variables that it’s almost impossible to find a clear measure of things, let alone draw any firm conclusions.
And while some studies might be able to point to a correlation between angry outbursts and heart attacks, this doesn’t mean that angry outbursts actually cause heart attacks. It’s a bit tricky trying to isolate the angry outburst from all the things that cumulatively make a person ill-tempered, such as being poor, unemployed, lonely, chronically stressed, depressed – all of which can affect our health.
Still, anger makes us breathe more quickly, our hearts beat faster and our muscles tense, so over time, this could cause wear and tear on arterial walls. Among those whose arterial walls are already clogged with atherosclerotic plaques, it can cause angina, as blood might not be able to get past the blockages to meet the extra oxygen demands.
In which instance, punching pillows is hardly going to help. And several studies have shown punching pillows can make you feel worse psychologically as well.
In one, from Iowa State University, participants had their spleens inflamed by being given negative feedback on their essays from an imaginary participant. Some were encouraged to punch a bag for as long and hard as they could, and to think about their critic while doing so. (The students were given a fake photo ID as a visual prop.)
Another group were given the chance to punch a bag, but told to think about getting fit. (They were given a photograph of an athlete from a sports magazine as a visual prop.) Those in the control group sat quietly for a few minutes.
The participants were then invited to blast their supposed critics with long, loud noises through a set of headphones, as a measure of their aggressive feelings. It turned out those who had punched the bag while thinking about their critics were more inclined to torture their critics’ eardrums than those in the other two groups. (And one participant got so angry while hitting the bag he punched a hole in the laboratory wall.)
But doing violence to soft furnishings is going to cause less damage than punching a person. It’s probably also going to cause less harm than telling that person you’d like to punch what you think of them, which always carries a high risk of backfiring. Especially if you do so at the moment when you really want to punch them.
Going for a swim or listening to some good music is probably going to be more diverting, but you probably knew that already, and that the emotional lives of human beings are considerably more complicated than hydraulic systems.