I know…venting feels good. By letting our emotions out, we think we’re going to feel better.
Wrong. And there is pretty solid science to back up just how wrong that is.
I’ve done it–hell, I do it more often than I know I should–but now I am consciously aware that it’s bad in multiple ways. And I’m working on doing it less and less because I’ve now learned how truly bad it is for me.
Research has shown that venting actually makes your anger worse…
According to Jeffrey M. Lohr, a University of Arkansas psychologist, “In study after study, the conclusion was the same: Expressing anger does not reduce aggressive tendencies and likely makes it worse.”
Furthermore, venting rubs off. Why? Because we are naturally empathetic beings.
In The Age of Empathy, primatologist Frans de Waal explains that empathy is an instinctual behavior. Researchers have observed it in social animals, from primates to mice.
We likely evolved our ability to empathize, de Waal says, due to parental instinct: Parents need to be tuned into their offspring to both bond with them and understand when they’re distressed.
That’s why crying babies can be so hard for us to handle and on the other hand why their giggles can be so infectious. Empathy is what makes us sneeze or yawn when someone else does and unconsciously mimic other people’s body language and facial expressions.
According to the Harvard Business Review, “Emotions spread via a wireless network of mirror neurons, which are tiny parts of the brain that allow us to empathize with others and understand what they’re feeling. When you see someone yawn, mirror neurons can activate, making you yawn, in turn.”
Researchers Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio from the University of California, Riverside found that if someone in your visual field is anxious and highly expressive—either verbally or nonverbally—there’s a high likelihood you’ll experience those emotions as well, negatively impacting your brain’s performance.
Another study found that 26% of people who observed stress had an increase cortisol (the chemical that is secreted in higher amounts when the body experiences stress and can result in various significant negative physiological problems).
OK, so we shouldn’t vent or even complain. It’s bad for us and it’s bad for those to whom we’re venting and complaining.
Removing Negativity From Your Life
You can’t completely isolate yourself, obviously.
But you can minimize the amount of negativity that you are exposed to.
Instead of empathizing, feel compassion. I know, seems like those are the same thing but they aren’t.
Research has shown that “some pain-sensitive parts of the brain are activated when we empathize with others who are in pain”. The research author, Tania Singer, says “empathy recruits negative emotions in people, while compassion elicits positive feelings.”
“When I empathize with the suffering of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suffering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we do not necessarily feel with their pain but we feel concern – a feeling of love and warmth – and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.”
Limit exposure to mass media. I currently have a one hour commute each way to work–and it often turns into one and a half hours, especially in the evenings. I used to listen to the radio; everything from NPR to the local pop music station depending on my mood and the day.
When I started to really focus on myself and my own potential, I started to analyze all parts of my life with particular focus on how I was spending my time. Time is all we have so it seemed important to start there.
I quickly noticed that what I was hearing on the radio every morning was, the vast majority of the time, negative in some way–sometimes more blatantly than other times but negative in some way most of the time.
I found it ranged from news about war, terrorism, or sensational events like people dying in record flooding to radio talk show hosts asking people to call in to “setup” their current spouse and catch them in the act of cheating.
I found it to be slowly, but surely, exhausting and depleting to my psyche. So I eliminated it and now I listen to one of three options.
- Nothing. Silence is nice. My mind wanders. I am able to think without as much distraction. This is probably my favorite option.
- Inspirational and motivational. I like this option a lot too and probably choose it the most often. I listen to classics like Earl Knightengale’s Lead the Field and, what I consider one of the best books and audio programs ever produced, The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, among others.
- Classical music. This is a great option when I am feeling the need for calm or feeling like I need some creative energy. Various research has shown classical music (and music in general) to have positive effects on mental activities. This CD is a great option if you want to get started with this option.
Limit your exposure to social media. We are all aware, or should be at this point, that people generally post the more positive events and moments in their life to social media. It’s easy to think when viewing those posts that they’ll make you feel better.
You’d be wrong.
Social media often portrays an idealised, highly considered version of our lives, which can engender feelings of inadequacy.
In other words, we measure ourselves against these somewhat misrepresentative expressions of other people’s lives and find ourselves, and our own lives, inadequate in comparison.
It’s literally depressing and the sad part is, it makes us forget that we’re all human and we’re all facing the human condition.
Sure, some are happier, better off, and more “in control” than others but for the most part, we’re all in the same boat. Don’t forget that and start by spending less time on social media.
Focus on the positive. We’ve all heard it a million times from a million sources but to me that means there is something to it. Practicing gratitude and positivity can have material effects on you.
This can be as simple as smiling by “cultivating positive emotions by recalling pleasant memories or thinking about the current situation in a more favorable way”. You can’t fake it, that actually worsens your mood and affects your productivity. Not to mention that one smile can provide the same level of brain stimulation as up to 2,000 chocolate bars and that smiling in general in stressful situations has been shown to have “both physiological and psychological benefits”.
Additionally, research has shown that focusing on gratitude can heighten your well-being and that “a conscious focus on blessings may have emotional and interpersonal benefits.”
Grow older. Say what? Yes, I said grow older. Research has found that older people tend to be happier starting around middle age. And if you are like me, you look for the positive aspects of growing older and this is a great one.
Alternatives to Venting, Complaining, and Negativity
Write it down. The 2008 study “Effects of Written Anger Expression in Chronic Pain Patients,” published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, found that expressive writing can be a constructive alternative to verbal venting because it can give you a better understanding of the cause of your feelings.
Label it. You can reduce the impact of the feeling by simply giving it a label and moving on. Don’t think about it too long, just give it the name it deserves and let it go. Focus on something else and it will dissipate faster than it would if you dwelled on it. This strategy from the book Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long.
Just breath. If you are feeling negativity, regardless of the source, you are feeling stress. Breathing has been shown to have multiple benefits for combatting stress including lowering blood pressure and other benefits.