On Anger and Letting off Steam

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Is anger a finite substance that can be let out or kept in, which “goes off” if it is kept in, and feels good and constructive to let out? Is any kind of emotional energy like that?

I have been wondering for awhile about the idea of catharsis (and it seems, from making brief acquaintance with anger management literature, that I am not alone). Is it really a good idea to just “let it all out” by pummeling whatever soft object might be handy? Does “letting off steam” really let the tension out and prevent an eventual explosion? (Editor’s Note: also see “Does Road Rage Make Physical Wounds Heal More Slowly?”.)

Is anger a finite substance that can be let out or kept in, which “goes off” if it is kept in, and feels good and constructive to let out? Is any kind of emotional energy like that, a finite substance which we can get rid of? Even my extremely basic level of scientific knowledge suggests not.

Well, many of us have experienced how good it can feel to let out that blood curdling scream of rage or to smash a fist into the table. It can feel a bit like a simple adrenaline rush. And if it feels good, why not do it again? And if it feels a little bit stale after repetition and not as good as the first time, then maybe you need to do something a bit more forceful — first of all to feel the adrenaline hit, and eventually to feel “normal.” Sound a bit like addiction? That is just what I am worried about. Regular bouts of anger can come to be another one of those ways of losing control that start to control us, and to damage the people around us.

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Of course as with everything else, it is an individual matter. For some people who have been taught that being angry is not acceptable and grow up quite certain that they do not feel anger at all (when will saying something like “I just never feel anger at all” sound as strange to most people as “I just never ever feel happy/sad”?) it may be a great thing to be able to let out that scream of rage and once may well be enough because over the years they will have built up a range of completely different ways of feeling good.

Some people who do not think they are angry but are, for example, depressed or passive-aggressive or just very nice to other people all the time without asking what they are feeling themselves might be well served by — well, what exactly? “Getting in touch with your anger” doesn’t seem to fit; if it wasn’t experienced before as such, is it really there under the surface waiting to be contacted? Or is the missing element not anger at all but more assertiveness or more awareness of the whole spectrum of feelings in the moment, and anger just the flash of energy we get when we realise that? A kind of protectiveness towards ourselves when we realise what we have “had done to us” or “done to ourselves”?

Maybe what we carry around with us is resentment, is the knowledge, on a certain level, that things were not fair, that we didn’t stick up for ourselves, that someone didn’t stick up for us…like an inflammable material which is all ready to go up if someone drops a match.

Better than allowing these flare ups to become habits, however good it may feel, is to go for the underlying causes, to be aware of our feelings and thoughts in the moment they arise and be assertive and expressive right then. Maybe this approach, if carried out very attentively, would lead to anger being almost eradicated. There are certainly religions and schools of thought which regard anger as a poison, which we do not have to suffer. People who keep up a serious and regular awareness meditation practice may feel impulses arising, but they do not trigger anger because they are recognised for exactly what they are — information that something in this situation needs to be protected, that something has been violated, that something is not acceptable. And once something is recognised, it can pass right on by.

To come back to the original point, catharsis might be helpful for some people, maybe in a ritual kind of way, to meet the animal strength in us and feel how much we want to protect ourselves. But I believe that very angry people are best off building up other parts of themselves, the parts of themselves which can observe, or the parts which can feel fully happily engaged in something, rather than feeding a spiral of anger that might become an escalating habit.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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